White House

The Bogus Story That Launched a ‘Collusion’ Probe

George Papadopoulos leaves after his sentencing hearing at U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., September 7, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
A minor functionary’s farcical encounter with a self-promoting schemer provided the excuse for an investigation.

Editor’s note: Andrew C. McCarthy’s new book is Ball of Collusion: The Plot to Rig an Election and Destroy a PresidencyThis is the fourth in a series of excerpts; the first can be read here, the second here, and the third here.

The George Papadopoulos Origin Story has never added up. It has been portrayed as the Big Bang, the Magic Moment that started the FBI’s investigation of “collusion” — a suspected election-theft conspiracy between Donald Trump’s campaign and Vladimir Putin’s regime. But if the young energy-sector analyst had actually emerged in early 2016 as the key to proving Trump–Russia espionage, you would think the FBI might have gotten around to interviewing him before January 27, 2017 — i.e., a week after President Trump had been inaugurated, and six months after the Bureau formally opened its “Crossfire Hurricane” probe.

You would probably also think Papadopoulos, Suspect One in The Great Cyber Espionage Attack on Our Democracy, might have rated a tad more than the whopping 14-day jail sentence a federal judge eventually imposed on him. You might even suppose that he’d have been charged with some seditious felony involving clandestine operations against his own country, instead of . . . yes . . . fibbing to the FBI about the date of a meeting.

That, however, does not scratch the surface. We are to believe that what led to the opening of the FBI’s Trump–Russia investigation, and what therefore is the plinth of the collusion narrative, is a breakfast meeting at a London hotel on April 26, 2016, between Papadopoulos and Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese academic we are supposed to take for a clandestine Russian agent. We are to take Papadopoulos’s word for it that Mifsud claimed Russia possessed “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands” of “emails of Clinton.” We are further to believe that “the professor” elaborated that, in order to help Donald Trump’s candidacy, the Kremlin would release these “emails of Clinton” at a time chosen to do maximum damage to the Democratic nominee’s campaign.

The story is based on no credible evidence. If it were ever presented to a jury, it would be laughed out of court.

The Papadopoulos “collusion” claims (without collusion charges) are alleged in the Mueller report, which essentially repeats the grandiose “Statement of the Offense” that the special counsel included with the comparatively minor false-statement charge to which Papadopoulos pled guilty. Carefully parsed, this narrative stops short of alleging that the Trump adviser actually collaborated with a Russian agent. Rather, it claims that Papadopoulos engaged in a lot of twaddle with Mifsud, who he had reason to suspect might be a Russian agent. The pair brainstormed endlessly about potential high-level Trump-campaign meetings with the Putin regime, including [insert heavy breathing here] between Trump and Putin themselves. Papadopoulos then exaggerated these meanderings in emails to Trump-campaign superiors he was hot to impress.

It is virtually certain that Mifsud was not a Russian agent. Whether he was an asset for any intelligence service, we cannot say with certainty at this point. But we can say that he had close contacts of significance with British intelligence, and with other Western governments.

As Lee Smith relates, Mifsud has also long been associated with Claire Smith, a prominent British diplomat who served for years on Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, which answers directly to the prime minister. Ms. Smith was also a member of the United Kingdom’s Security Vetting Appeals Panel, which reviews denials of security clearances to government employees. During her career in the British foreign service, Smith worked with Mifsud at three different academic institutions: the London Academy of Diplomacy (which trained diplomats and government officials, some of them sponsored by the U.K.’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the British Council, or by their own governments), the University of Stirling, in Scotland, and Link Campus University in Rome, where Mifsud first met Papadopoulos. The campus is a well-known draw for diplomats and intelligence officials — the CIA holds conferences there, the FBI holds agent-training sessions there, and former U.S. intelligence officials teach there.

In Rome on March 14, Papadopoulos met Joseph Mifsud. Twice Papadopoulos’s age, the Maltese professor gravitated to his fellow Link University lecturers and professors, who, as Lee Smith notes, “include senior Western diplomats and intelligence officials from a number of NATO countries, especially Italy and the United Kingdom.” Mifsud also taught at the University of Stirling and the London Academy of Diplomacy. That is to say, if Mifsud had actually been a Russian agent, he was situated to be one of the most successful in history.

Not likely.

Mifsud was a shameless self-promoter (at least until Russiagate notoriety sent him underground). He traveled frequently, including to Russia, where he participated in academic conferences and claimed acquaintance with regime officials — though how well he actually knows anyone of significance is unclear. In sum, Mifsud is the aging academic version of Papadopoulos. Thierry Pastor, a French political analyst who (with a Swiss-German lawyer named Stephan Roh) co-wrote a book about l’affaire Papadopoulos, made this observation about Mifsud’s brag that he knew Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov: “Yes, he met Lavrov. He met him once or twice in a large group. He knows Lavrov, but Lavrov doesn’t know Joseph. [Mifsud’s] contacts in Russia are with academics.”

Nevertheless, the Trump–Russia narrative holds that Mifsud actually is a well-placed Russian agent who became interested in Papadopoulos upon discovering that he was a key (yup . . .) Trump adviser. According to this story, Mifsud introduced the younger man to a woman presented as Vladimir Putin’s niece. The professor also hooked Papadopoulos up with Ivan Timofeev, whom prosecutors pregnantly described as “the Russian MFA connection” (as in the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs — Lavrov’s office) when they eventually charged Papadopoulos with making false statements. Timofeev and Papadopoulos had fevered discussions about setting up a Putin–Trump meeting in Russia. Finally, at their April 26 breakfast in London, Mifsud let slip that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton in the form of “thousands” of “emails of Clinton” — which, the narrative holds, must have been a reference to the DNC emails that Russian intelligence hacked and WikiLeaks disseminated during the Democratic party’s convention in July.

The story is bogus through and through. There is no proof that Mifsud is a Russian agent — Mueller never alleged such a thing, either when Papadopoulos was charged or in the special counsel’s final report, which concluded that there was no Trump–Russia conspiracy. The woman in question was not Putin’s niece; she was eventually identified as Olga Polonskaya, the 32-year-old manager of a St. Petersburg wine company, who (the Mueller report suggests, based on a “Baby, thank you” email) may have been romantically involved with Mifsud. Timofeev is actually a young academic researcher who runs a Russian think tank, the Russian International Affairs Council. The RIAC has some sort of tie to the MFA, but no discernible connections to Russian intelligence. Like Mifsud, Timofeev is an academic; he was in an even less likely position to schedule a meeting for Putin than Papadopoulos was to do so for Trump. The hypothetical Putin–Trump summit was an inchoate idea that senior Trump officials shot down even as Papadopoulos and Timofeev were dreaming it up.

What about those “emails of Clinton”? Other than the word of Papadopoulos, a convicted liar and palpably unreliable raconteur, there is no evidence — none — that Mifsud told him about emails. The professor never showed him any emails. And in his February 2017 FBI interview, Mifsud denied saying anything to Papadopoulos about Clinton-related emails in the possession of the Kremlin. Of course, Mifsud could be lying. But there is no evidence that he would have been in a position to know the inner workings of Russian intelligence operations.

It is not enough to say that Mueller never charged Mifsud with lying to the FBI. In Mueller’s report, when prosecutors have evidence that Mifsud gave inaccurate information, they say so. For example, they allege that Mifsud “falsely” recounted the last time he had seen Papadopoulos. But Mueller never alleges that Mifsud’s denial of knowledge about Russia’s possession of emails is false. And if we learned anything from Mueller’s investigation, it is that he knows how to make a false-statements case.

In any event, Mifsud’s supposed comment about Clinton’s emails obviously made little impression on Papadopoulos. The day after he met the professor, Papadopoulos sent two emails to high-ranking Trump-campaign officials about his meeting with Mifsud. In neither did he mention emails. Papadopoulos instead focused on the possibility — far-fetched, but apparently real to Papadopoulos — that Mifsud could help arrange a meeting between Trump and Putin. Prior to being interviewed by the FBI in January 2017, Papadopoulos never reported anything about Russia’s having emails — neither to his Trump-campaign superiors, to whom he was constantly reporting on his conversations with Mifsud, nor to Alexander Downer, the Australian diplomat whose conversation with Papadopoulos was the proximate cause for the formal opening of the FBI probe.

It was only when he was interviewed by the FBI in late January 2017, nine months after his conversation with Mifsud, that Papadopoulos is alleged to have claimed that Mifsud said the Russians had “thousands” of “emails of Clinton.” There is no known recording of this FBI interview, so there is no way of knowing whether (a) Papadopoulos volunteered this claim that Mifsud mentioned emails or (b) the email claim was suggested to Papadopoulos by his interrogators’ questions. We have no way of knowing if Papadopoulos is telling the truth (and therefore hid the possibility of damaging Clinton emails from his Trump-campaign superiors for no fathomable reason) or if he was telling the FBI agents what he thought they wanted to hear (which is what he often did when reporting to the Trump campaign).

Is the Mifsud–Papadopoulos connection a case of Western intelligence agencies entrapping the Trump campaign by first using an “asset” (Mifsud) to plant a damning “Russia helping Trump” story with Papadopoulos, and later using another “asset” (Stefan Halper) to try to get Papadopoulos to repeat that story so that “collusion” could be proved?

At this point, we don’t know. Here is what we do know: The United States government has never charged Joseph Mifsud. It has never accused him of being an agent of Russia. It took no steps to arrest him despite opportunities to do so. In fact, the FBI interviewed Mifsud and, when he denied Papadopoulos’s claim that he had told the young Trump adviser that Russia had Hillary emails, the Bureau let him go. Special Counsel Mueller never alleged that Mifsud’s denial was a false statement.

That’s a pretty a curious way to treat the “Russian agent” who was the rationale for the incumbent administration’s use of foreign counterintelligence powers to investigate the presidential campaign of its political opposition, no?

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