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.
- Fox News: “North Korea threat: US preparing sanctions, targeting banks linked to regime.”
What it means: The Trump administration wants to sanction Chinese banks that do business with North Korea.
- Fox News: “Man linked to search for missing Pennsylvania men held on $1M bail.”
What it means: The FBI arrested a guy on gun charges. Four people are missing. Nobody knows what the connection is.
- USA Today: “Food Network finalist’s killer linked to unsolved homicide.”
What it means: Police suspect that a guy convicted of murder in one case may have killed somebody 15 years earlier.
- WebMD: “Sleep Disturbances Linked to Alzheimer’s Risk”
What it means: Researchers disturbed the sleep of nine people, then measured how much “beta amyloid” was in their spinal fluid. There was an increase. And that protein is also present in Alzheimer’s sufferers.
- ABC 13: “Official: FBI arrests Hawaii-based soldier linked to Islamic State”
What it means: “[A U.S.] official said that the soldier was arrested because of connections he had with the Islamic State group.” That’s the total extent of the information.
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.