Joseph Mifsud, an academic who’s been rubbing shoulders with Western intelligence and security officials, was prompted in the spring of 2016 to introduce George Papadopoulos, then a junior aide to the Trump campaign, to Mifsud’s contacts in Russia.
According to Stephan Roh, Mifsud’s lawyer, the suggestion came from Mifsud’s longtime associate and former Italian interior minister, Vincenzo Scotti, as well as Nagi Idris, a lawyer of Sudanese origin who at the time was Papadopoulos’s boss at the London Centre for International Law Practice (LCILP).
Information stemming from the Mifsud-Papadopoulos contacts was cited by the FBI as the reason why the bureau launched a counterintelligence investigation into several members of the Trump campaign.
Roh’s account comes at a time when the Trump administration, as well as some Republican lawmakers, seek to determine how the snooping on Trump campaign aides under the Obama administration was started and justified.
Attorney General William Barr told Congress in April about his intent to review “both the genesis and the conduct of intelligence activities directed at the Trump campaign during 2016.” He’s delegated part of the task to U.S. Attorney John Durham.
Roh said he provided to Durham’s team a May 2018 recorded deposition of Mifsud’s together with other information. Roh also provided the deposition to some members of Congress “as we think that it is in the best interest of Prof Mifsud to cooperate with US investigators and as he has not instructed us otherwise,” Roh said in an email.
Roh said he lost contact with Mifsud a few months ago.
Mifsud was portrayed in the final report of special counsel Robert Mueller as a person who “maintained various Russian contacts.” (pdf)
It was Mifsud who, on April 26, 2016, told Papadopoulos that Russia had “dirt” on former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the form of thousands of emails, Papadopoulos later told the FBI.
In the spring of 2016, the FBI was still investigating whether Clinton mishandled classified information by using a private email server for State Department business. The U.S. intelligence community assisted in that probe by checking whether Clinton’s emails had been obtained by foreign actors.
Weeks after the FBI closed that investigation without charging Clinton, much of the same counterintelligence team learned of what Mifsud told Papadopoulos and promptly opened the Trump-Russia probe, according to the official narrative.
Mueller took over the probe in 2017 and, in March, concluded that “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
Mifsud denied to the FBI telling Papadopoulos anything about Clinton’s emails or Russians having damaging information about her. He characterized himself as a “member” of the Clinton Foundation in his October 2017 interview with Italian La Repubblica; the foundation doesn’t have a membership. As opposed to several others, including Papadopoulos, Mifsud wasn’t charged by Mueller with lying to the FBI.
Mifsud or Scotti?
If Roh’s representations prove accurate, they would deal another blow to the FBI’s justification for starting the probe, undermining its portrayal of Mifsud as a cut-out between the Russian government and Papadopoulos.
In his deposition, Mifsud said that it was Scotti who asked him to co-host a table at an upscale restaurant in Rome in March 2016. At the table was Papadopoulos, Idris, and others from the LCILP. Mifsud was listed on LCILP’s website as a board adviser and, after July 2016, director of international strategic development. The LCILP website later disappeared from the web.
After the dinner, as they were leaving the restaurant, Mifsud continued to chat with Papadopoulos and learned “he was going to join … Mr. Trump’s campaign,” he said. In fact, it was about a week or two after Papadopoulos joined the campaign.
The two kept in contact and at some point “Scotti and Nagi Idris suggested that Mifsud should introduce Papadopoulos to his Russian contacts,” Roh said, referring to “declarations of Mifsud made in front of our team” and not the deposition itself.
Papadopoulos “was pushing very much to be introduced to Russians,” Roh said.
Papadopoulos previously acknowledged he was eager to prove himself to the campaign and envisioned organizing a high-level meeting with Russian officials.
On March 24, 2016, Papadopoulos met with Mifsud in London and Mifsud introduced him to Olga Polonskaya. Papadopoulos got the impression that she was “Putin’s niece” and that she and Mifsud “had the wherewithal to set up a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials,” according to court documents.
Mifsud later said it was Idris “who proposed that she was ‘Putin’s niece,’” according to Roh.
Idris didn’t respond to a request for comment.
In mid-April 2016, Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to Ivan Timofeev, an academic with a think tank tied to the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry. Papadopoulos kept pressing for a meeting with Russian officials, but it never materialized.
Papadopoulos was sentenced to two weeks in prison in September 2018 for lying to the FBI, by saying Mifsud told him about Clinton’s emails before he joined the Trump campaign.
Mifsud called Papadopoulos an “Agent Provocateur,” according to Roh, though it’s not clear whom he was supposed to provoke, for what purpose, and on whose behalf.
Papadopoulos didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mifsud’s Russian contacts appear mostly in academic circles. The Mueller report said Mifsud knew “a one-time employee” of the Internet Research Agency (IRA), the entity Mueller indicted for running a social media campaign aimed at stoking division among Americans before the 2016 election.
The report seems to show that Mifsud in January and February 2016 discussed potentially meeting that person in Russia, though the investigation found no evidence that the meeting took place.
The report didn’t indicate what position the former IRA employee held at the firm. One former IRA employee told CNN the firm employed about 1,000 people on site and perhaps more who worked remotely. Russian paper Novaya Gazeta reported that IRA recruited people through social media posts, promising a salary of less than $800 a month.
Mueller’s indictment didn’t allege that the IRA acted on behalf of the Russian government. In May, a federal judge ordered the Justice Department “to refrain from making or authorizing any public statement that links the alleged conspiracy [involving IRA] in the indictment to the Russian government or its agencies.” (pdf)
Link Campus Connection
Mifsud has been a man of many titles, but the only gig that stayed with him through nearly all of his career was at the Link Campus University in Rome.
He helped to found the institution in 1999, together with Scotti, who became its president. Mifsud acted as a “director of international relations” and recruited foreign students for Link. The Renaissance manor that Link took as its campus became a mingling place for Western intelligence and security officials.
In 2004, the CIA sponsored a conference co-hosted by Link that “brought together officials from intelligence and police agencies of nearly 30 countries,” including then-CIA Deputy Director Jami Miscik, The Washington Post reported.
Former CIA analyst Stephen Marrin was a guest lecturer at Link.
Andrew Bagley, a former FBI adviser, was a visiting researcher at Link in 2010, according to his 2015 resumé. Since 2015, he’s been privacy counsel to CrowdStrike, the cybersecurity firm hired by the Democratic Party to probe its servers after an alleged Russian hack in 2016.
FBI Special Agent Preston Ackerman apparently gave a presentation at Link in September 2016.
Italian Defense Minister Elisabetta Trenta has been the director of “Special Projects” at Link since 2015, according to her LinkedIn profile.
Gen. Carmine Masiello and Roberto Baldoni, both deputy directors of the Italian Department of Security Intelligence, lectured or gave talks at Link.
Emanuela Del Re, Italian deputy minister of foreign affairs and international cooperation, lectured at Link in 2015 and 2016 (pdf).
Claire Smith, a career UK diplomat and former member of the UK Joint Intelligence Committee, gave a training course to high-ranking Italian military officials in Rome in 2012, which was co-organized by Link. Smith was photographed there, standing next to Mifsud.
In 2017, Link was named the coordinator on two NATO Research Projects related to urban warfare (pdf, pdf).
One of Mifsud’s longtime associates was Gianni Pittella, former first deputy president of the European Parliament. Mifsud knew Pittella since at least 2011, and the two maintained a close relationship during the time Pittella was the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest power block in the European Parliament. Pittella also gave a talk together with Mifsud at a Link forum on terrorism in 2015.
Pittella didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Roh is an investor in Link, holding a 5 percent stake, he said.
Link supposedly cut ties with Mifsud after his conversations with Papadopoulos came out in late 2017.
“I can’t afford to have the university embroiled in shady situations,” Scotti told The Washington Post. “As long as I have no reason to suspect anyone of a problem, they will have the utmost freedom to pursue their work. But as soon as I see a sign of a problem, that’s it. The relationship ends.”
But Mifsud was still living in Rome until May 2018 in an apartment apparently provided by Link, according to an April 18 report by Italian list Il Foglio.
A request for comment from Scotti, emailed to Link Campus, went unanswered.
Update: The article has been updated with information from Stephan Roh that he is an investor in Link Campus University. The article has also been updated with further information regarding the Internet Research Agency (IRA) and the lawsuit where IRA is one of the defendants.