Professor Joseph Mifsud, a 57-year-old Maltese academic based in London and boasting a string of past posts with UK and European universities, has emerged as an unlikely focus of attention in the controversy over Russian links to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign.
Mr Mifsud is identified only as an “overseas professor” in a 14-page “statement of the offence” filed by special counsel Robert Mueller against Mr Trump’s campaign foreign policy adviser George Papadopoulos on Monday. But he confirmed to the UK’s Daily Telegraph that the description referred to him, before disputing as “incredible” the allegation that he had spoken to Mr Papadopoulos about the Russians holding “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Mr Trump’s rival in the 2016 race.
The Financial Times has been unable to speak to Mr Mifsud or to independently verify his role but several links between him and Mr Papadopoulos highlight a relationship that the White House dismisses as irrelevant but which critics say could cast light on ties between Moscow and the Trump campaign.
“Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar,” Mr Trump tweeted on Tuesday. “There is NO COLLUSION.”
The charge sheet filed by Mr Mueller says Mr Mifsud told Mr Papadopoulos he knew of the existence of “thousands” of Clinton emails in April 2016 — about six months before WikiLeaks published a tranche of hacked emails from Clinton campaign chief John Podesta.
Mrs Clinton has partially blamed Russian propaganda efforts for swinging the election against her. “These were stolen emails, and the best judgment from our intelligence professionals and independent analysts is they were stolen by Russia,” she said in September.
Given Mr Mifsud’s alleged knowledge about compromising emails so early on in 2016, the Papadopoulos affidavit would appear to cast him as a figure with powerful connections at the highest level of Russian politics.
However, interviews with several people who have met him cast doubt on that portrayal.
“Russia was a place where we had an exchange programme at the Moscow Diplomatic Academy,” said Professor Nabil Ayad, who previously worked with Mr Mifsud running the London Academy of Diplomacy, a college for overseas students. “But I don’t think he has reached that level [of influence] unless by chance Putin happened to be at a place he was teaching. There’s nothing sinister about him.”
Mr Ayad said the London Academy was dissolved last year.
Anatol Lieven, a Georgetown professor who teaches international relations, added: “I’ve honestly never read a word he has written and am not familiar with any of his opinions.”
There are signs, however, that Mr Mifsud has gained a status in Russian society that would be unexpected for a relatively unknown academic.
He was received one-on-one by the Russian ambassador to London in 2014, according a press release from the embassy.
“That does strike me as curious, someone at his level as an academic being received by the ambassador on his own,” said Mr Lieven.
Joseph Mifsud at the Valdai Discussion Club Conference in April 2016 © AP
Mr Mifsud has also sat on at least one panel at events at the Valdai club, an organisation that holds high-profile gatherings for the Russian and international political and academic elites backed by the Kremlin.
The Mueller indictment refers to an email sent by “the professor” in which he says he is flying to Moscow for a Valdai meeting on April 18 2016. According to details of an event published online, Mr Mifsud spoke on a Valdai panel on April 19. He was the only London-based academic who was on the panel.
“There is this penumbra of people who didn’t quite make it and are able to somehow play off their purported Russia connections to advance themselves,” said Samuel Charap, a senior political scientist at the Rand Corporation and regular Valdai attendee. “Whether you have them or not, pretending that you do is a way to boost your cachet if you don’t have it for other things.”
Further evidence of Mr Mifsud’s links to Mr Papadopoulos come through the London Centre for International Law Practice, a legal think-tank with headquarters at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
Mr Papadopoulos describes himself as a former director of the LCILP while cached pages from the organisation’s website list Mr Mifsud as a former board adviser.
On Tuesday morning an FT reporter visited the LCILP’s offices, confirming the organisation’s existence, but a member of staff repeatedly declined to comment on any connections to Mr Mifsud or Mr Papadopoulos.
By lunchtime, Mr Mifsud’s significance was being debated in the British House of Commons after Labour MP Ben Bradshaw asked whether the UK government had given any indication of being prepared to make a statement on the “British connection” in Mr Mueller’s investigation into what Mr Bradshaw called “Russian subversion of the American presidential election”.
Mr Mifsud has been employed since May by the politics department of the University of Stirling in Scotland but a university spokesperson refused to disclose any further details about him.
According to the Mueller inquiry Mr Papadopoulos initially told the Federal Bureau of Investigation that the professor was a “nothing” who was “just talking up his connections”.
This may turn out to be the case.
Mr Mueller, however, seems intent on following up the allegations Mr Papadopoulos subsequently made about his contacts with Mr Mifsud for any evidence of collusion between Moscow and the Trump campaign — a radioactive issue in Washington.
Whether Mr Mifsud and Mr Papadopoulos are bit-part players or not, the special investigator has now placed them firmly at the centre of the storm.
Additional reporting by Robert Wright in London and Courtney Weaver in Washington