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Seeking the ghost at center of Trump quest to discredit Mueller

With a photograph of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Joseph Mifsud in the background, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), middle, questions former Special Counsel Robert Mueller during the House Intelligence Committee hearing about his report on Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, in the Rayburn Hose Office Building in Washington, D.C., on July 24, 2019.

CHIP SOMODEVILLA/GETTY IMAGES/TNS

By JOHN FOLLAIN | Bloomberg News | Published: October 5, 2019

ROME (Tribune News Service) — Just before vanishing, Joseph Mifsud confided in a colleague at an obscure private university in Rome that he feared for his life.

That was two years ago, in October 2017, and academics at the elite training-ground for spies and security chiefs near the Vatican thought they had put the sorry affair behind them.

But the strange case of the missing Maltese professor and former campus adviser is now one of multiple threads entangled in the dispute over Donald Trump's efforts to show he was the victim of foreign meddling in the 2016 election and not the beneficiary of interference by Russia's Vladimir Putin as former special counsel Robert Mueller found.

Democrats seeking to impeach Trump assert that the American president has leaned improperly on U.S. allies from Australia and Italy to Ukraine in that effort.

In August and in September, Attorney General William Barr visited Rome in search of answers over Mifsud's mysterious disappearance. After authorizing meetings Barr had with intelligence chiefs, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte may now address a Rome parliamentary panel on the encounters, such is the degree of scrutiny.

Mifsud is a key figure because he allegedly informed Trump campaign adviser George Papadopoulos that Russia had emails damaging to Democrat Hillary Clinton, an assertion that became part of Mueller's investigation. On Oct. 5, 2017, Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI.

Some believe that Mifsud was actually an agent of the "deep state" determined to undermine Trump's candidacy for president. Barr has said he's investigating possible "spying" on Trump's campaign.

Around the time of Papadopoulos' guilty plea, Mifsud, a polyglot former senior civil servant, vanished without a trace. The trail he left behind at the university paints a complicated picture.

Conversations with colleagues and friends, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity, describe a character, both endearing and indiscreet, who they say couldn't possibly have been a spy for Russia or the U.S.

The school swept up in the political drama an ocean away, Link Campus University, is tucked away in the 16th-century home of a pope, with a park of pine and cypress trees. With 2,200 students, Link prides itself on producing graduates that go on to work in the intelligence, defense and law and order sectors. When a Bloomberg News reporter visited on Friday, a forum on cybersecurity was underway.

Pasquale Russo, the university's director-general, refers to Mifsud as "Jo" and recalls him as extremely well-connected, fun, and a bon-viveur fond of restaurant dinners.

"This speculation that Jo was a spy for the Americans or the Russians, it's rubbish," Russo said at the university's elegant cafe, decorated with contemporary art. "Jo was much too open and chatty to be a spy. I know – spies come to teach here. They're very discreet."

Russo speaks of his friend in the past tense.

Staff said they are skeptical about the claim concerning Clinton's emails. They say Mifsud sometimes stretched the truth, claiming to know people he didn't, or making promises he failed to fulfill when he worked there as an adviser on helping to attract foreign students.

University officials stress that Mifsud never actually served as a professor there. Academics now jokingly refer to him as "The Ghost."

Although Barr's meetings with intelligence chiefs in Rome reportedly focused on Mifsud, university staff insist that no Italian or foreign authority – be it the police, prosecutors or secret services – has asked the institution about Mifsud's whereabouts.

The university rented an apartment for Mifsud, which it canceled in January 2018 after he lost a forthcoming position as a visiting professor. Mifsud then failed to reply to its emails about the apartment, which was found empty of any of his belongings.

Papadopoulos visited the university in 2016, but Link's founder and chairman Vincenzo Scotti, a former interior and foreign minister, denies that the former Trump adviser had come to meet Mifsud.

"This is a stupid falsehood," Scotti said. When Papadopoulos came it was as part of a delegation from the London-based Centre of International Legal Practice, whose board Mifsud was a member of, Scotti added.

Scotti complains the university is the victim of disinformation. "We were among the first to denounce the strategy of Russian disinformation, before Europe and the United States publicly started taking it seriously," Scotti said.

And for all the unwelcome attention, Mifsud remains an enigma.

One colleague wistfully recalls the afternoon of the last day that Mifsud was seen at the university. As Mifsud kissed him goodbye on both cheeks he told him to be careful, and to stay in touch.

I'll keep you informed, Mifsud replied before getting into his car and driving away.

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