How Donald Trump Jr. is linked to Russia, and why “linked to” is a weasel word

Photo: Mark Schellhase via Wikimedia Commons

Yesterday’s explosive New York Times headline read “Trump Team Met With Lawyer Linked to Kremlin During Campaign.” But what exactly does “linked to” mean, here or in any other news story? Set your weasel detectors on this word, because it’s usually the weakest link in any news story.

Here’s what the Times is reporting:

  • Trump Jr agreed to meet Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya because she had damaging information on Hillary Clinton. (Trump Jr. disputes this.)
  • The original email to Trump Jr about the meeting suggested that he would hear about “material was part of a Russian government effort to aid his father’s candidacy.” (The author of the email denies this.)
  • Trump Jr brought Jared Kushner and Trump’s campaign chairman at the time, Paul Manafort, to the meeting.
  • The content of the meeting is in dispute. Trump Jr says once it became clear that Veselnitskaya was more interested in undoing sanctions against Russia and easing restrictions on American adoptions of Russian orphans, he ended the meeting.

To be clear, this looks very bad. Meeting with any Russians during the campaign was a big mistake. But who is Natalia Veselnitskaya and what is her link to the Kremlin? If you just gloss over the headline, it’s easy to believe she must be operating as part of the Russian government, which the Russians deny. I’m not saying we should trust the Russians, but what does “linked to” mean here?

According to ABC News and The New York Times, this is the connection:

  • Natalia Veselnitskaya is a Russian lawyer who has been actively campaigning to repeal the Magnitsky Act.
  • The Magnitsky Act, passed by Congress in 2012, sanctions Russian officials for the death of a Sergei Magnitsky while awaiting trial. Magnitsky was a lawyer and auditor who had revealed corruption in the Russian government. Vaselnitskaya has cast doubt on what Magnitsky found.
  • The Russian government halted American adoptions of Russian children in response to the sanctions.
  • Ms. Veselnitskaya was formerly married to a former deputy transportation minister of the Moscow region
  • Her clients include state-owned businesses and a senior government official’s son, whose company was under investigation in the United States at the time of the meeting.

So “linked to” is complicated. It’s not as if she emailed Trump Jr and said “I’m from the Kremlin and I’m here to help you win the election.”

What does “linked to” mean?

When you read “linked to” in a news story, it could mean just about anything. It’s journalistic shorthand for “I’m trying to make a connection between two things, but the connection is difficult to explain. Here are some examples in headlines from the last few days.

As you can see from these, “linked to” means either a) no information on the link, b) the link is complicated to explain, or c) the link is tenuous. It’s also passive, in that it doesn’t say who is doing the linking. If you think “linked to” means an actual and damning connection, you’re trusting the journalist. But if you read on, you may find that the journalist’s explanation doesn’t hold water . . . or that there’s nothing there.

“Linked to” is a weasel word. It should always set off your skepticism. Don’t trust it until you’ve read more.

One response to “How Donald Trump Jr. is linked to Russia, and why “linked to” is a weasel word

  1. “Linked to” is one ubiquitous weasel term in the press. Unfortunately, news editors sometimes make the decision to use the term in a headline, so it’s not always the reporter’s fault.

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