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.
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.