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‘The enigma of the entire Mueller probe’: Focus on origins of Russian investigation puts spotlight on Maltese professor

Joseph Mifsud participates in an Organization of American States meeting in Washington on Nov. 12, 2014. (Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS)

Shortly after Joseph Mifsud’s efforts to help connect a Trump adviser with the Kremlin were detailed in court filings, an Italian reporter found him at a university in Rome, where he was serving as a visiting professor.

“I never got any money from the Russians: my conscience is clear,” Mifsud told La Repubblica. “I am not a secret agent.”

Then Mifsud disappeared.

The Maltese-born academic has not surfaced publicly since that October 2017 interview, days after Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about details of their interactions. Among them, Papadopoulos told investigators, was an April 2016 meeting in which Mifsud alerted him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails.”

The conversation between Mifsud and Papadopoulos, eventually relayed by an Australian diplomat to U.S. government officials, was cited by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III as the event that set in motion the FBI probe into ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.

With Attorney General William P. Barr’s review of the counterintelligence investigation underway, the origins of the inquiry itself are now in the spotlight — and with them, the role of Mifsud, a little-known figure. 

In Mifsud’s absence, a number of President Trump’s allies and advisers have been floating a provocative theory: that the Maltese professor was a Western intelligence plant.

Seizing on the vacuum of information about him, they have promoted the idea that he was working for the FBI, CIA or possibly British or Italian intelligence, citing exaggerated and at times distorted details about his life.

Trump attorney Rudolph Giuliani told Fox News in April that Mifsud was a “counterintelligence operative, either Maltese or Italian,” who took part in what sounded to him like a “counterintelligence trap” against Papadopoulos. 

Spokeswomen for the FBI, Justice Department and CIA declined to comment, as did a spokesman for Italy’s Security Intelligence Department. 

A redacted version of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III's report was released to the public on April 18. Here's what's in it. (Video: Brian Monroe, Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

Such a notion runs counter to the description of Mifsud in the Mueller report, which states Mifsud “had connections to Russia” and “maintained various Russian contacts,” including a former employee of the Internet Research Agency, the Russian organization that carried out a social media disinformation campaign in 2016.

Former FBI director James B. Comey, in an opinion column for The Washington Post in May, described Mifsud bluntly as “a Russian agent.” 

Mifsud did not respond to requests for comment made through Stephan Roh, a Swiss lawyer who says he represents the professor. Roh said suggestions that the professor had ties to Russian intelligence are “defamatory accusations.”

Mueller’s report is silent on whether Mifsud’s interactions with Papadopoulos were part of the Russian government’s efforts to interfere in the presidential campaign and boost Trump. 

Officials familiar with U.S. intelligence reports told The Post that Mifsud had been identified by intelligence agencies as a potential Russian agent before he met Papadopoulos, an assessment drawn from reporting collected over several years.

An examination of Mifsud’s activities also shows that he began forging ties in Russia years earlier — and that he was working to expand his network in that country around the same time he met Papadopoulos in 2016, including by trying to broker new academic deals with a powerful Russian state university. 

Mifsud visited Moscow just weeks before the U.S. presidential election to mark the signing of the deal, according to Russian media reports at the time. In a previously unreported episode, he welcomed a Kremlin-linked academic to speak at Rome’s Link Campus University in December 2016, shortly after Trump’s election.

A video of the event shows Mifsud announcing that he hoped the visit by Alexey Klishin, who teaches at an elite institute run by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and has done legal work for the Kremlin, would not be a “one-off thing.”

“Friendship is very important,” Mifsud said.

The idea that Mifsud was working for the West has been pushed by Roh, who wrote a book called “The Faking of Russia-Gate: The Papadopoulos Case.” 

In an email to The Post, Roh said Mifsud was a “Western intelligence element to be protected,” saying that is why the professor felt the need to hide for the past two years.

He said Mifsud has been living “mainly in Rome but moving in Europe.” He also claimed, without providing evidence, that Mifsud cooperated with Mueller in 2018 and was interviewed by “U.S. investigators” this year.

Asked to specify the Western intelligence agency for whom Mifsud worked and in what capacity, Roh said only that “this will be a matter of the upcoming declassification,” an apparent reference to the review ordered by Barr. Roh, who has business connections in Russia of his own, did not respond to follow-up questions.

Once a fringe idea, the theory that Mifsud was a Western operative has now been adopted and amplified by mainstream voices in Trump’s world and received significant airtime on Fox News’s prime-time shows.

“When you look into Mifsud closer, you realize he’s connected with all kinds of intelligence agencies, including our own FBI,” Rep. Devin Nunes (Calif.), the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, told Fox in May. “If he is in fact a Russian agent, this would be one of the biggest intelligence scandals for the United States and our allies.”

Nunes declined to comment further. 

Giuliani told The Post that “Mifsud is a mystery to be explored,” adding that the Papadopoulos episode “looks like a rogue counterintel operation.”

Papadopoulos, too, has adopted the theory, tweeting recently that Mifsud was “an Italian intelligence asset who the CIA weaponized” against him to drop “fake Russia” information into his lap as part of a broader plot.

“He is the enigma of the entire Mueller probe,” Papadopoulos said in an interview, insisting he wants the truth to come out about Mifsud, regardless of what it entails. But, he added, “whatever remnant of my reputation that I have left, I would bet it all that he was a Western intelligence operative.” 

Multiple former intelligence officials in the United States and the United Kingdom said that theory does not make sense. 

John Sipher, a former CIA officer who once ran the agency’s Russia operations, called the idea that Mifsud was a CIA asset who set up Papadopoulos “nonsense,” noting that the CIA is not allowed to target Americans. 

Steve Hall, who retired in 2015 after 30 years running and managing Russian operations for the CIA, said that in counterintelligence, “you can almost never rule anything out completely.” 

But he added that Mifsud’s known activities closely parallel long-standing Russian techniques of targeting academic institutions to spot possible recruits and gather information, making it more likely that Mifsud was working with the Russians than a Western intelligence agency.

“Oftentimes, you can cut through a lot of BS by saying, what makes the most sense here?” he said.

A global networker

Born in Malta and educated in Italy and Northern Ireland, Mifsud cycled through European academic institutions, traveling to conferences, networking and pitching partnerships between schools in various cities, according to people who encountered him at the time. 

Multilingual, urbane and well traveled, Mifsud was an inveterate networker and name-dropper, according to people who met him. They said he floated ambitious dreams of creating international academic institutions that would share professors and students. 

Mifsud has said that he spent several years as a diplomat for the Maltese government. Based on that credential, Mifsud in 2010 was named director of the London Academy of Diplomacy, a small graduate school catering to embassy officials living in the U.K.

The program provided Mifsud with access to London’s diplomatic set, including the Russian Embassy, where photographs posted online show he met with the ambassador in 2014. 

“He was in­cred­ibly well connected with various people in embassies and that world in London,” said Douglas Brodie, who was then a dean at the University of Stirling in Scotland, which partnered with Mifsud’s school to ensure Mifsud’s students could receive British degrees. 

Brodie, who said he liked Mifsud and found him good company, said the Maltese professor appeared to be a genuine academic — though one with little interest in the administrative details of the school. “He was far more interested in trying to bring in highflying guest speakers and much more interested in working the embassy drink circuit than the nuts-and-bolts stuff,” Brodie said, adding: “He loved all of that.”

Mifsud would later claim that in this time, he became a “member” of the Clinton Foundation. A person familiar with the foundation said the organization has received just two donations from people named “Joseph Mifsud” — a series of small donations from a Michigan man totaling $30 between 2000 and 2002 and one for $50 from a London resident in 2015.

Beginning at least around 2010, Mifsud made multiple trips to Russia, attending conferences and academic conferences, according to Russian media accounts and university news releases.  

In 2012, Mifsud’s London Academy of Diplomacy formed a partnership to exchange students and conduct joint research with Lomonosov Moscow State University’s Faculty of Global Processes, which an official advertised in a promotional video as a steppingstone for graduates to work “in the Russian government, the presidential administration, federal ministries and agencies, the special services.”

Professor at center of Russia disclosures claimed to have met with Putin

About once a year between 2013 and 2017, Mifsud attended events at the university, where he delivered lectures and appeared in university photos.

“He was famous to us within the sphere of diplomats and those working on diplomacy,” said Yury Sayamov, a professor at the school who said he met Mifsud after he delivered a lecture on diplomacy in Moscow in 2015, adding: “Many people in academia know him — in Russia and in other countries.” 

Mifsud’s former assistant, Natalia ­Kutepova-Jamom, told The Post in 2017 that Mifsud accelerated his efforts to build high-level contacts in Russia around 2014, claiming at one point to have secured a brief meeting with Russian President Vladi­mir Putin.

A Kremlin spokesman denied that Mifsud and Putin met.

Professor at center of Russia disclosures claimed to have met with Putin

In emails to The Post sent in August 2017, Mifsud wrote that his Russia “contacts and interest [were] academic.” He said he was a visiting professor at Moscow State University but said it was “an unpaid honorary position, similar to those I have with other institutions and think tanks globally.”

“I am an academic, I do not even speak Russian,” he wrote. He told The Post then that he had “absolutely no contact with the Russian Government.”

When interviewed by the Italian reporter in Rome two months later, he offered a different account. He told La Repubblica that he had discussed the possibility that the election would result in a change to U.S.-Russian relations with various people in Europe and Moscow, including Russian government figures. 

Offer of Russian connections

Papadopoulos and Mifsud met in the spring of 2016 as Trump was rising in the polls.

At the time, Papadopoulos, a young energy consultant from Chicago, was working for a start-up think tank called the London Center for International Law Practice and had just been drafted to be an unpaid foreign policy adviser for the Trump campaign.  

On the day after he agreed to join the campaign, Papadopoulos said his boss at the London think tank offered to introduce him to “a very important person” who would be “very useful” in his new position. 

This VIP, Papadopoulos wrote in his book “Deep State Target,” was Mifsud. 

Papadopoulos said he was told by Nagi Idris, the director of the London Center for International Law Practice, that a London attorney affiliated with the think tank named Arvinder Sambei would be setting up a meeting for Papadopoulos and Mifsud at an upcoming conference to be held at Link Campus University in Rome, a private university that was formerly affiliated with the University of Malta.

Sambei is a former government prosecutor in the United Kingdom who had for a time served as a liaison with the U.S. Justice Department on American extradition requests.   

Trump allies have seized on her connection to the think tank where Papadopoulos worked as evidence that Mifsud was working with the British government. 

But in an interview, Sambei said she played no role in Papadopoulos’s introduction to Mifsud. She said that by the time she became affiliated with the London think tank, she was in private practice and had had no affiliation with the British government for 11 years. She did not attend the meeting in Italy and said her only brief encounter with Papadopoulos came in the coffee break room, shortly before he left London.

“It’s baffling to me where this is coming from,” Sambei said. “I don’t even know George. I’ve never even been formally introduced to him.”

In an interview, Papadopoulos maintained that he was told Sambei arranged his introduction to Mifsud. 

Idris did not respond to requests for comment. 

That March, Papadopoulos said he traveled to Rome with Idris, who introduced him to Mifsud. Over dinner at a restaurant near the Trevi Fountain, Papadopoulos wrote that Mifsud dropped a “lure,” bringing up Russia and promising to be Papadopoulos’s “middleman around the world.”

“ ‘I’m going to introduce you to everyone and set up a meeting between Trump and Putin,’ ” Mifsud told him, according to Papadopoulos’s book.

According to the Mueller report, Mifsud contacted Papadopoulos after both men returned to London, beginning a courtship that would lead to the opening of the Russia investigation. 

Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to a Russian graduate student who Papadopoulos believed was Putin’s niece, according to Mueller’s report. Before disappearing, Mifsud said the woman was a Russian graduate student and denied telling Papadopoulos she had Putin links.

Mifsud also connected Papadopoulos to a Russian think tank director with ties to the Russian Foreign Ministry and promised to help set up a meeting with the Russian ambassador, according to the special counsel’s report.

Papadopoulos has said that, at the time, he hoped that Mifsud would provide introductions he could use to ingratiate himself with Trump campaign officials, who he believed were looking for ways to better American relations with Russia.

The conversation that kicked off the Russia investigation occurred on April 26, 2016 — the day after Mifsud returned to London from a trip to speak at the Russian government-linked Valdai Discussion Club meeting in Moscow, according to Mueller’s report.

On his return, Mifsud met Papadopoulos at the Andaz Hotel in London, and over breakfast, told him that he had just met with high-level Russian government officials, Papadopoulos later told investigators. 

The Russians, Mifsud said, had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to the Mueller report. 

Mifsud has denied ever telling Papadopoulos that the Russians had Clinton emails.

In a lengthy response to written questions from The Post, Roh suggested that Papadopoulos was “directed and used” by the FBI — perhaps unwittingly — to get in contact with Russians in a failed effort to locate emails that Clinton had deleted from her private server. Mifsud, he wrote, was “operating on behalf of Western intelligence agencies when they met” and Papadopoulos’s interaction with him “was surveilled.” 

Roh provided a power-of-attorney letter that appeared to be signed by Mifsud in May 2018 to show that he is authorized to speak on the professor’s behalf, but he did not provide any evidence of recent contact with the professor.

The Swiss attorney has his own Russian ties. In addition to his law practice, he leads an investment firm and a consulting business with Moscow offices, according to their websites. Photos show he appeared with Mifsud at the Valdai panel discussion in Moscow in 2016.

Last year, Roh changed the name of a company he registered in London to “The No Vichok Ltd.,” an apparent reference to the poisoning of a former Russian spy in the United Kingdom with the nerve agent Novichok. British authorities have presented significant evidence that the attack was undertaken by Russian intelligence officers, and senior U.S. intelligence officials have concurred with that assessment.

Roh told BuzzFeed, which first reported the registration, that the company would conduct research about the attack, which he suggested was in fact a plot by Western intelligence. He did not respond to a question from The Post about the company. He said he had “no business interests in Russia” and noted he is not licensed to practice law there.

A university in the spotlight

The Rome university where Papadopoulos met Mifsud has been cited repeatedly by Trump supporters as evidence that Mifsud was working for Western intelligence.

In his book, Papadopoulos calls Link Campus University “Spook University” and claims it is “a training school for Western-allied spies, including CIA, FBI, and MI6,” the British Secret Intelligence Service. 

He and others have seized on a 2004 CIA-sponsored conference that was loosely affiliated with Link. 

The unclassified event, titled “New Frontiers of Intelligence Analysis,” was attended by analysts from more than 30 countries, according to people with knowledge of the gathering and conference materials reviewed by The Post, some of which were published online.

The CIA’s Sherman Kent School for Intelligence Analysis organized the conference with the Gino Germani Institute, an Italian social sciences and strategic studies think tank, which was affiliated at the time with Link. But the university didn’t plan the content, and the conference wasn’t held on its campus.

The speakers included historians and government officials, including some who were widely quoted in the press at the time about a variety of security topics. Post columnist David Ignatius was invited and wrote about the panels and speakers. 

In an interview, Link President Vincenzo Scotti scoffed at the notion that the school is a front for the CIA or other intelligence services. “People say such stupid things,” said Scotti, an Italian politician who served as minister of interior affairs for two years in the early 1990s. “We have no relationships with the CIA.” 

Founded in 1999 as a branch of the University of Malta, the campus went private in 2011.

Roberto Di Nunzio, a businessman who previously taught at Link, said it was one of the first private universities in Italy to offer a master’s degree program about intelligence and security. But he said the goal from the start was to cater to private industry and not government intelligence services, which have their own training schools.

Scotti played down Mifsud’s connections with the Roman university. He said Mifsud began visiting when Link was affiliated with the University of Malta in 2000 and would attend events and seminars there periodically over the subsequent years. Mifsud formally served as a visiting professor for just one semester, in 2017, he said.

But a former employee of the school who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe internal matters said Mifsud played a key role at the school in developing academic partnerships between Link and universities in other countries, including Russia. 

During the same months in 2016 when Mifsud was wooing Papadopoulos, Link was negotiating a new deal to exchange students and professors and host joint events with Moscow State University — the same Russian state school that Mifsud was visiting annually.  

In a 2017 article about the arrangement in a Russian international affairs journal, Sayamov, the Russian professor, wrote that Mifsud had been the first to suggest the idea. Roh too told The Post that Mifsud was “instrumental in negotiating and building that partnership like he was instrumental in negotiating and building partnerships with other universities.” 

Mifsud can be seen in a video of the Oct. 8, 2016, signing ceremony for the deal, which aired on Russian television.

Scotti, however, disputed the characterization of Mifsud as a key player in the partnership with the Russian university. 

“He played no role in the arrangement — no principal role,” Scotti told The Post. The idea that Mifsud brokered the agreement, he said, is “categorically” false.

As the deal with the Russian university was being negotiated, Link officials vetoed proposals by faculty members to co-sponsor conferences that would highlight the security challenges Russia posed to Europe, according to the former employee. 

“They said, we can’t do this, because we’re in negotiations with the Russians and they’re suspicious of us, because they think we’re linked to the Americans and we have to reassure them that we’re not,” said the former employee.

Scotti denied that academic events that could offend Russia were torpedoed, noting that Link hosted a conference on cybersecurity in January 2015. “The allegations against Link University are fake news, since [the university] was actually issuing a warning against Russian misinformation,” he said.

The former employee said Link merely provided a hall for the conference and did not organize the event, which was not focused solely on Russia and predated Link’s negotiations in Moscow.

Di Nunzio said similar events after 2015 omitted references to Russian disinformation.  He added that at Link, “there were people who felt unnerved” about the agreement with the Russian university, adding that it “did indeed raise some eyebrows.”

Roh said the university severed ties with Mifsud after his conversation with Papadopoulos about Clinton’s emails was made public in court filings. 

“I can’t afford to have the university embroiled in shady situations,” Scotti said. “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.”

A visit to Rome

About two months after Link brokered its partnership with Moscow State University, a top Russian academic from a different university paid a visit to Rome.

Klishin held a formal role as a professor and a department head at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, an elite campus with decades of history training future diplomats. The school is run by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, whose current chief, Sergei Lavrov, is a graduate. 

Klishin, who did not respond to requests for comment, was also a former member of the upper house of the Russian parliament and had performed legal work for the Kremlin, according to his official biography. 

During Klishin’s visit to the Link campus, Mifsud told a group assembled around a large conference table that he hoped it would be one of “many, many more,” according to a video of the event. 

Klishin began his remarks by “personally” thanking Mifsud and Roh, who was also in attendance.

Scotti said that the event was arranged by Mifsud and that he had no reason to question Klishin, who had spoken at universities around the world, including in the United States. “I can’t tell you anything about that individual’s activities, as he was, and still remains, totally foreign to me,” he said.

By February 2017, Mifsud was in the United States, where he spoke on a panel held at the visitor’s center of the U.S. Capitol at a meeting hosted by the nonprofit group Global Ties U.S., which helps organize foreign exchange programs in the United States. 

His invitation from the group, which receives State Department funding for some of its programs, has been cited by Trump allies as evidence that Mifsud was trusted by the U.S. government. 

However, in a statement, the organization said the event at which Mifsud spoke was privately funded and not affiliated with the State Department. Mifsud was invited to provide a “European perspective” about the future of public diplomacy, the group said.

While he was in Washington, the FBI approached Mifsud in the lobby of his hotel and questioned him about his interactions with Papadopoulos, prosecutors have said. Mueller wrote in his report that the Maltese professor made various inaccurate statements but that lies Papadopoulos had told the FBI about his interactions with Mifsud when he was interviewed 12 days earlier “undermined investigators’ ability to challenge Mifsud.”

Mifsud was allowed to leave the country. Mueller’s report does not say whether U.S. investigators ever located him again.

Papadopoulos said he is more eager than anyone for the Maltese professor to be found.

“Some of the other strange characters in my story have gone public,” he said. “Mifsud is the only one who has not come up for air — and I don’t know why.”

Anton Troianovski and Amie Ferris-Rotman in Moscow; Stefano Pitrelli and Chico Harlan in Rome; and Matt Zapotosky, Carol D. Leonnig and Alice Crites in Washington contributed to this report.