WASHINGTON - Attorney General William Barr has said he is reviewing the origins of the Russia investigation. As part of the review, 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 FBI's rationale for opening the Russia inquiry.
President Donald Trump and some of his allies have asserted without evidence that a cabal of U.S. officials - the so-called deep state - embarked on a broad operation to thwart Trump's campaign. The conspiracy theory remains unsubstantiated, and the Justice Department has not explained why Barr feels the allegations merit a review, though he would need to run down all leads if he was to conduct a thorough audit.
Who is Joseph Mifsud?
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 Mifsud is a Western intelligence agent possibly under the control of the FBI or CIA whom deep state officials dispatched as a counterintelligence trap for the Trump campaign.
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 Trump's Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, if they became public.
James Comey, the former FBI director, has called Mifsud a Russian agent. 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.
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?
Mifsud and Papadopoulos first met in March 2016 in Italy. The next month, after Mifsud had traveled to Moscow, they met again in London, where Mifsud revealed that the Russians possessed information that could damage Clinton.
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 Mueller, who took over the Russia investigation in May 2017.
How did the FBI learn about his offer?
Papadopoulos bragged in May 2016 to a pair of Australian diplomats about Mifsud's offer of Russian dirt about 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 FBI's counterintelligence investigation in July 2016 into Russia's attempts to disrupt the election and whether any Trump associates conspired.
What happened to Papadopoulos?
The FBI began investigating him, along with three other Trump associates, as part of the counterintelligence inquiry. When agents questioned Papadopoulos about his interactions with Mifsud, he repeatedly lied, according to court records, hindering investigators' attempts to potentially detain Mifsud.
He had been in the United States and agents interviewed him once, but Mifsud left the country. He has since disappeared from public view.
Papadopoulos was eventually convicted of lying to federal investigators and served 12 days in prison.
Since leaving prison, 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 Trump from being elected and asserting that he was a pawn in that operation.
How does Mifsud fit into that theory?
Papadopoulos has posited that Mifsud was "an Italian intelligence asset who the CIA weaponized" as part of the unsubstantiated "deep state" plot. The president's personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani has claimed, also without evidence, that Mifsud was a "counterintelligence operative, either Maltese or Italian."
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., 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 Papadopoulos was involved in the supposed plot. Australian officials rejected Graham's characterization of the diplomat's role in the episode.
On Friday, 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?
Mifsud worked for neither the FBI nor the CIA, former U.S. officials said. If he had been an FBI informant, prosecutors could have easily found and questioned him. If Mifsud was working for the CIA, the agency would have had an obligation to tell the FBI as it investigated Papadopoulos.
So to believe the conspiracy that Mifsud was secretly working for the CIA 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 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.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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