Below is my column in The Hill newspaper on the name that came up repeatedly in the Mueller hearings to the surprise of many viewers. The name is Joseph Mifsud and we still know little about him because Mueller, like so many others, refuses to discuss him. It is an example of how much of the origins of the Russian investigation remain largely walled off from public discussion.
More of such information arose this week after former Trump Adviser George Papadopoulos announced that he is heading back to Greece to retrieve $10,000 that “he suspects was dropped in his lap as part of an entrapment scheme by the CIA or FBI.” Once again, few people have heard of this money or the underlying allegation.
Here is the column:
Joseph Mifsud: The name of the generally unknown character in the Russia investigation came up, over and over, in the long-awaited House committee hearings with former special counsel Robert Mueller. Republican Jim Jordan of Ohio invoked the name as if it legally required the accompaniment of horror movie theme music; Mueller immediately snapped back that he would not discuss that man. Yet that did not deter Republicans. “Joseph Mifsud,” “Joseph Mifsud” — the mantra continued until the shadowy professor had emerged as the Keyser Söze of the Mueller hearings.
Söze was the mysterious figure in the film “The Usual Suspects.” Another of the film’s characters, “Verbal” Kint, explained to an FBI agent that Söze was a criminal mastermind who committed horrible acts and then disappeared: “Nobody has ever seen him since. He becomes a myth, a spook story that criminals tell their kids at night. Rat on your pop, and Keyser Söze will get you.”
Mifsud appears to be the story that Republicans tell their kids at night. However, it is a new story for most of us. Political analyst David Gergen acknowledged as much during CNN’s live coverage of hearings, saying that Republicans “presented things, frankly, we haven’t talked about much on CNN, aspects of this that are on the right but we don’t — you know — we haven’t visited because we don’t put much stock in a lot of what they’re arguing.”
Indeed, despite the nonstop coverage of the Russia investigation, most news shows have rarely “visited” the allegations linked to Mifsud. Certain subjects are rarely visited by CNN or other networks, at least not substantively. Media largely dismisses the fact that the Clinton campaign also solicited political dirt from foreign intelligence sources, including Russian intelligence, through investigator and British ex-spy Christopher Steele and the research firm Fusion GPS. Few programs mention that Glenn Simpson, a co-founder of Fusion GPS, had dinner with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya both the day before and the day after she met with Donald Trump Jr. at Trump Tower on June 9, 2016.
Many figures are now household names, such as resigned Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and onetime Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. But not Mifsud, despite his central role as a catalyst of the original investigation. For Republicans, it is like what Kint said about Söze: “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist.”
Two years ago, I wrote about Mifsud and his curious role in the unfolding scandal. He was variously described as a “Russian stooge,” a “KGB cutout” or an intelligence handler. Mifsud had worked as a “full-time professorial teaching fellow” at the University of Stirling in Scotland and was a professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy. He had a degree from the University of Malta and ran in diplomatic circles as a type of dealmaker for grants and conferences. He was said to be a fan and claimed acquaintance of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
For Republicans, if there was a Garden of Eden in the Trump campaign, Mifsud was the snake. It was Mifsud who, in a 2016 meeting in London with then-Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, suddenly broached the possibility that the Russians might have emails and dirt on Hillary Clinton. Notably, he had that meeting just after returning from Moscow and allegedly referred to “thousands of emails.” Papadopoulos later repeated what he had been told to Australian diplomat Alexander Downer in a London pub, and Downer reported that to the U.S. government.
Ultimately, Mueller concluded there was no evidence supporting a conspiracy theory against the Trump campaign, and he found no evidence that any Trump official knowingly worked with Russian hackers or trolls. Yet Mifsud appears to be there at the genesis. What remains a curiosity is that Mueller indicted various people for false statements. Most were relatively minor criminal cases in terms of sentencing, leading to a few weeks in jail for people like Papadopoulos. The Mueller report indicates Mifsud lied repeatedly to investigators on sensitive national security issues — and yet Mueller did not charge him with a single count. Cooperating witnesses were sentenced for lying but not Mifsud. Conversely, if Mifsud acted on behalf of U.S. officials to create the foundation for the Russia investigation, then that raises a host of other questions. For example, if Mifsud was an American agent (which he denies), why would he allegedly lie to the United States government?
As acknowledged by CNN’s Gergen, this is all very interesting — and it was not (as widely treated by the media) ridiculous for Republicans to raise with Mueller. The most credible point about Mifsud is that his relative anonymity in news coverage reflects a broader problem: There is a consistent effort to preserve a narrative that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump. That was demonstrably true. However, it is not the only story. The Russians also had contacts and shared information with the Clinton campaign.
While Democrats have been highly emotive in demanding answers to the “full” story about Russian efforts, they have consistently opposed any effort to investigate such contacts within their own party or associates, dismissing that as a distraction. Likewise, documented anti-Trump bias by key players in the Russia investigation is treated as “unfortunate” or “not relevant.” There is every reason to be concerned that these same key players used people such as Mifsud to launch an investigation during the Obama administration against figures in the opposing party. If the Bush administration had launched secret surveillance of Clinton’s campaign staff, the media would hardly have been so cavalier.
That is how we end up with the mysterious Mr. Mifsud. He is unknown precisely because he is unwelcome in mainstream stories. The “usual suspects” do not “visit” that part of the story, particularly the absence of any criminal charge in a sea of indictments of Russian trolls and hackers. Even Mueller walled off that story. Mueller was supposed to investigate all Russian interference in the elections, and his inquiry took him to bank fraud and tax violations entirely unrelated to the election or to Russians. Yet there is no evidence that he ever investigated Russian intelligence efforts directed at Clinton campaign officials and associates.
While Mueller would say there is an ongoing investigation into such matters, that investigation did not start until long after Mueller’s appointment. The question is, what will happen when that investigation is completed? Will Democrats demand the same full disclosure of the facts, to get to the bottom of those contacts and efforts to influence our elections? In “The Usual Suspects,” Kint told the FBI agent that another character “always said, ‘I don’t believe in God, but I’m afraid of him.’ Well, I believe in God, and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Söze.” Söze feared precisely because he was so obscure.
Democrats have made Joseph Mifsud scary in the same way. He could just be a rumor-spreading, Putin-loving professor from Malta. Or he could be a master spy working for the Russians — or for Western intelligence. What makes him so scary is not what we know but what we don’t know … that and the fact that no one on Mueller’s team or in the political establishment wants to talk about him
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.