A two-week prison sentence was the conclusion of the criminal case against the man who allegedly prompted the launch of an FBI investigation into the campaign of then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016.
George Papadopoulos, once a campaign advisor to Trump, was sentenced to 14 days in prison, a $9,500 fine, and community service, for lying to the FBI. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to the charge almost a year ago but agreed to have his sentencing postponed multiple times.
Papadopoulos lied about the timing and extent of his contacts with Maltese academic Joseph Mifsud and two Russians that Mifsud introduced him to.
Mifsud had told Papadopoulos on April 26, 2016, that certain “Russians” have in their possession thousands of emails of former State Secretary Hillary Clinton, according to Papadopoulos’s guilty plea as well as the sentencing memos from both the prosecution and the defense, and Papadopoulos’s recent CNN interview.
Mifsud’s claim led to the launch of the FBI counterintelligence probe of supposed Trump-Russia connections, according to the official FBI narrative.
The investigation was the bureau’s justification for an extensive spying operation against the Trump campaign.
Young Man in Politics
In the summer of 2015, Papadopoulos, barely 28 then, tried to secure a post with the Trump campaign, but failed. He instead joined the team of Ben Carson who is now Housing Secretary.
As Carson was wrapping up his failed presidential bid in January 2016, Papadopoulos landed a job that would significantly boost his resumé—director of the Centre For International Energy and Natural Resources, Law and Security at the London Centre of International Law Practice (LCILP). Mifsud was listed as the center’s board adviser and, since July 2016, its director of international strategic development. LCILP appears to have since removed its staff page from its website.
Papadopoulos tried again to join the Trump campaign and, after an early March 2016 interview, landed the position of an advisor.
On March 14, 2016, Papadopoulos was on a trip to Rome with the LCILP. There he met Mifsud, who expressed an interest in his joining the Trump team.
Mifsud later told La Repubblica that he offered to provide contacts in the Arabian Gulf, in Latin America, in Russia, and in the European Council.
Papadopoulos knew Trump wanted to improve relations with Russia, just as Obama and Clinton had before him. He wanted to boost his profile with the campaign by setting up a meeting with some high-level Russian officials, “mostly for a photo-op,” he told CNN.
Mifsud promised to help.
On March 24, 2016, Papadopoulos met with Mifsud in London and Mifsud introduced him to Olga Polonskaya.
Mifsud claimed she was a relative of Russian President Vladimir Putin, Papadopoulos said.
The young woman used to work for a liquor wholesaler in St. Petersburg and later studied at the Link Campus University in Rome, according to Russian journalist Alexander Kalinin, who dug into her background. Mifsud taught at Link and in a 2013 mini bio was called its director of international relations.
“Mifsud and Olga led George to believe that they had the wherewithal to set up a meeting between the Trump campaign and Russian government officials,” Papadopoulos’s defense team stated.
On March 31, 2016, Papadopoulos attended the “National Security Meeting” at the Trump Hotel. There he pitched to Trump, then-Senator Jeff Sessions, and other campaign officials Mifsud’s offer.
Some opposed the idea. Trump gave him a nod and deferred to Sessions. Sessions “appeared to like the idea and stated that the campaign should look into it,” the defense stated. Sessions testified to Congress on Nov. 14 that he pushed back on Papadopoulos’ proposal and told him he’s not authorized to represent the campaign with any foreign government.
In mid-April, Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to Ivan Timofeev, a PR man of sorts in the academic world for the Russian Foreign Affairs Ministry.
“George pressed [Timofeev] through emails and Skype calls about setting up a potential meeting,” the defense stated. “He believed that such a meeting would be a boon for the campaign as Mr. Trump had not yet hosted any major foreign policy events with officials from other countries.”
On April 26, 2016, Papadopoulos met with Mifsud in London hoping to nail down plans for the meeting. It was then that Mifsud dropped a bomb on him.
“I have information that the Russians have thousands of Clinton emails,” Mifsud said, Papadopoulos told CNN.
At the time, the FBI was known to be investigating Clinton’s private email server for mishandling of classified information. The FBI was also probing whether the poorly secured server was compromised by foreign adversaries.
In this context, Papadopoulos thought Mifsud “was simply repeating gossip and rumors.”
Mifsud didn’t promise or offer anything. “I have no idea at this point why he told me that information in London,” Papadopoulos told CNN.
The promised meeting with Russians never took place.
This would have been the end of the story—if it weren’t for Alexander Downer, the top Australian diplomat in Britain at the time.
Thompson had been introduced to Papadopoulos before by their common acquaintance, Christian Cantor, an official at the Israeli Embassy in London. But Papadopoulos told CNN he found it “odd” that Downer would reach out to him—a man with no experience with the U.S.-Australia relationship.
As the official story goes, Papadopoulos told Downer, after a few drinks, the Mifsud story about Russians having Clinton emails. When, on July 22, 2016, Wikileaks started to release emails they say were leaked from the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Australian government communicated to the FBI what Downer learned from Papadopoulos. The FBI then made an inference that the Clinton emails being referred to were the same as the DNC emails and that Papadopoulos, therefore, must have had prior knowledge of the emails.
Since Crowdstrike, a firm hired by the DNC, provided data that indicated the DNC emails were hacked by Russians, the FBI formed a thesis that Papadopoulos and maybe the Trump campaign itself could be agents of foreign influence—working with a foreign adversary or being unwittingly used by a foreign adversary—to sway the 2016 election. That was enough to launch a counterintelligence operation on July 31, 2016, that justified the spying operation against the Trump campaign. The investigation still continues, now under Special Counsel Robert Mueller, but still hasn’t substantiated the core allegation of Trump-Russia collusion.
Papadopoulos, however, denied talking to Downer about the Clinton emails.
“I have absolutely no recollection of ever mentioning that to this individual,” he told CNN.
Downer denied hearing anything about emails from Papadopoulos.
“He said material that could be damaging to her. No, he said it would be damaging. He didn’t say what it was,” Downer told The Australian.
The Clinton emails are different from the DNC emails. “I never heard the word ‘DNC,’” Papadopoulos told CNN about his talk with Mifsud.
Papadopoulos said he blurted out something about Clinton emails to Greek Foreign Minister Nikos Kotzias in late May, when Papadopoulos was sent to Greece by the Trump campaign to feel out the government about its relationship with the United States. But there has been no indication that Kotzias ever did anything with the information.
Papadopoulos eventually mentioned the emails to the FBI himself in January 2017, when he was asked by agents for an interview.
The agents appeared to already know what Papadopoulos had to tell them.
“Going back to the WikiLeaks and maybe the Russian hacking and all that, were you ever made aware that the Russians had intent to disclose information ahead of time?” they asked. “So before it became public? Did anyone ever tell you that the Russian government plans to release some information, like tell the Trump team ahead of time, that that was going to happen?”
“No,” he responded.
“No?” the agents skeptically asked, according to the prosecution’s memo.
“No, not on, no not the Trump [campaign], but I will tell you something,” Papadopoulos said, following with the Mifsud’s story. However, he lied, saying Mifsud shared the claim before he joined the Trump campaign, when in fact it was after. He told CNN it was because he wanted a White House job and thus tried to put a distance between the Mifsud’s claim and the campaign.
The FBI obtained search warrants and subpoenas to get Papadopoulos’ emails, text messages, internet search history, and other information, which they used to later bust him for lying.
Around Feb. 8, 2017, the FBI interviewed Mifsud, who was in Washington to speak at the Global Ties conference (pdf) sponsored by the State Department’s Office of International Visitors.
The prosecutors blamed Papadopoulos’s lie for their inability “to effectively question” Mifsud and “potentially detain or arrest him.”
But the defense disagreed, saying “it was still apparent, despite George’s lie, that Professor Mifsud communicated this information [about Clinton emails] to George prior to the stolen emails being made public.”
There’s no indication that the FBI tried to reinterview Mifsud, even though Italian La Repubblica managed to interview Mifsud as late as October 2017, when he attended a conference on cyber threat intelligence held at the Link Campus.
Mifsud appeared to contradict to the paper Papadopoulos’s testimony.
“I strongly deny any discussion of mine about secrets concerning Hillary Clinton,” he said. “I swear it on my daughter.”
While Mifsud has been portrayed in the media as a shadowy figure, most of his background connects to a single point—the Link Campus.
Link’s picturesque campus a mile from the Vatican City is led by Vincenzo Scotti, former Italian minister of interior and minister of foreign affairs. Mifsud helped launch the school in 1999 and, through his other endeavors, helped channel students to it.
Link offers degrees in performing arts, fashion design, economics, and digital communication. But it also, until 2016, offered a master’s degree in intelligence and security as well as a master’s degree in behavioral analysis and applied sciences in intelligence and homeland security. These two courses later disappeared from Link’s website.
Both CIA and FBI sent their officers to lecture at Link. In 2004, the CIA and Link organized a conference in Rome that “brought together officials from intelligence and police agencies of nearly 30 countries,” including then-CIA deputy director for intelligence Jami Miscik, The Washington Post reported. Former CIA analyst Stephen Marrin gave at least one lecture at Link in 2015. The U.S. Embassy in Rome sent FBI Special Agent Preston Ackerman to conduct a seminar at Link in September 2016, according to an investigation by columnist Lee Smith.
In 2017, Link has been named the coordinator on two NATO Research Projects related to urban warfare. One deals with surveillance integration and the other with managing multiple drones supporting counter-terrorism missions.
One of Mifsud’s 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 as Pittella became the leader of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats, the second-largest power block in the European Parliament. Pittella gave a talk together with Mifsud at a Link forum on terrorism in 2015.
“Joseph is a dear friend of mine,” Pittella said, according to Italian online newspaper L’Occidentale.
Pittella showed up at the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. “I have taken the unprecedented step of endorsing and campaigning for Hillary Clinton because the risk of Donald Trump is too high,” he told Time. “I believe it is in the interest of the European Union and Italy to have Hillary Clinton in office. A Trump victory could be a disaster for the relationship between the U.S.A. and Italy.”
Pittella resigned from the EU Parliament position in 2017 after winning a seat in the Italian Senate.
Mifsud hasn’t been seen since the end of 2017. His associate, Swiss-German lawyer Stephan Roh, said Mifsud was told by Link head Scotti to lay low.
The way Mifsud and some others approached Papadopoulos and some other Trump campaign associates resembles a sting operation, according to former FBI Agent Mark Wauck.
“What appear to have been repeated attempts to implicate the Trump campaign, in some sort of quid pro quo arrangement with Russians who claimed to have ‘dirt’ on Hillary [Clinton], look like efforts to manufacture evidence against members of the Trump campaign or create pretexts to investigate it,” he told RealClearInvestigations.
In that scenario, it could also be that a third party entrapped the campaign and fed the resulting info to the FBI, said former FBI Agent and Epoch Times contributor Marc Ruskin.