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WASHINGTON — Attorney General William P. Barr has said he is reviewing the origins of the Russia investigation. As part of the review, Mr. Barr met recently with officials in Italy, where in 2016 a Trump campaign adviser met Joseph Mifsud, a professor whose actions figured prominently into the F.B.I.’s rationale for opening the Russia inquiry.
President Trump and some of his allies have asserted without evidence that a cabal of American officials — the so-called deep state — embarked on a broad operation to thwart Mr. Trump’s campaign. The conspiracy theory remains unsubstantiated, and the Justice Department has not explained why Mr. Barr feels the allegations merit a review, though he would need to run down all leads if he is to conduct a thorough audit.
Who is Joseph Mifsud?
Mr. Mifsud was a professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy who also spent time as a political science faculty member at Link Campus University, a school in Rome.
Some of the president’s allies have pushed an unfounded theory that the Maltese-born Mr. Mifsud is a Western intelligence agent possibly under the control of the F.B.I. or C.I.A. whom the deep state officials dispatched as a counterintelligence trap for the Trump campaign.
Mr. Mifsud told a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos, in the spring of 2016 that the Russians had “thousands” of stolen Democratic emails that could prove damaging to Mr. Trump’s Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, if they became public.
James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, has called Mr. Mifsud a Russian agent. Mr. Mifsud maintained contacts with Russians associates, including a former employee of the Internet Research Agency, which used social media posts to sow discord in 2016 as part of Russia’s election sabotage.
Mr. Mifsud told an Italian newspaper in 2017 that he was not a secret agent. “I never got any money from the Russians,” he said. “My conscience is clear.”
What did he tell the Trump campaign?
Mr. Mifsud and Mr. Papadopoulos first met in March 2016 in Italy. The following month, after Mr. Mifsud had traveled to Moscow, they met again in London, where Mr. Mifsud revealed that the Russians possessed information that could damage Mrs. Clinton.
Mr. Mifsud suggested that the Russian government could assist the Trump campaign through the “anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Hillary Clinton,” according to the report by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, who took over the Russia investigation in May 2017.
How did the F.B.I. learn about his offer?
Mr. Papadopoulos bragged in May 2016 to a pair of Australian diplomats about Mr. Mifsud’s offer of Russian dirt about Mrs. Clinton’s hacked emails. The Australian government passed the information to the United States, but only months later — after WikiLeaks published the stolen Democratic emails.
The Australians’ account, including the revelation that a member of the Trump campaign may have had inside information about the email hacking, was a driving factor in the F.B.I.’s counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 into Russia’s attempts to disrupt the election and whether any Trump associates conspired.
What happened to Mr. Papadopoulos?
The F.B.I. began investigating him, along with three other Trump associates, as part of the counterintelligence inquiry. When agents questioned Mr. Papadopoulos about his interactions with Mr. Mifsud, he repeatedly lied, according to court records, hindering investigators’ attempts to potentially detain Mr. Mifsud.
He had been in the United States and agents interviewed him once, but Mr. Mifsud left the country. He has since disappeared from public view.
Mr. Papadopoulos was eventually convicted of lying to federal investigators and served 12 days in prison.
Since leaving prison, Mr. Papadopoulos has promoted unfounded assertions and outright conspiracy theories about the Russia investigation. He wrote a book, “Deep State Target,” accusing the Obama administration of mounting a coordinated effort to spy on the Trump campaign and keep Mr. Trump from being elected and asserting that he was a pawn in that operation.
How does Mr. Mifsud fit into that theory?
Mr. Papadopoulos has posited that Mr. Mifsud was “an Italian intelligence asset who the C.I.A. weaponized” as part of the unsubstantiated “deep state” plot. The president’s personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani has claimed, also without evidence, that Mr. Mifsud was a “counterintelligence operative, either Maltese or Italian.”
Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina and chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wrote to Prime Minister Scott Morrison of Australia last week alleging that one of its former diplomats who met with Mr. Papadopoulos was involved in the supposed plot. Australian officials rejected Mr. Graham’s characterization of the diplomat’s role in the episode.
On Friday, Mr. Trump also raised the specter of the conspiracy. “They think it could have been by U.K. They think it could have been by Australia. They think it could have been by Italy,” he said, without elaborating on the accusations themselves or who was making them.
Why are these theories improbable?
Mr. Mifsud worked for neither the F.B.I. nor the C.I.A., former American officials said. If he had been an F.B.I. informant, prosecutors could have easily found and questioned him. If Mr. Mifsud were working for the C.I.A., the agency would have had an obligation to tell the F.B.I. as it investigated Mr. Papadopoulos.
So to believe the conspiracy that Mr. Mifsud was secretly working for the C.I.A. is to believe that either the intelligence community withheld from prosecutors that he was one of their agents or that prosecutors conspired to deceive federal courts.
To believe that another Western government secretly employed Mr. Mifsud as part of a plot against the president is to believe that an elaborate conspiracy entirely eluded the special counsel’s office in its exhaustive investigation, which included more than 2,800 subpoenas, nearly 500 search warrants, 13 requests to foreign governments for evidence and interviews of about 500 witnesses.
Michael Novakhov – SharedNewsLinks℠