What professor really told FBI about Trump, Russia and Papadopoulos

By John Solomon
Opinion Contributor

If one reads special counsel Robert Mueller’s court filings against George Papadopoulos, it’s hard not to conclude that the former Trump campaign aide lied to FBI agents to hide some sinister plot with Russia.

Now, let me be clear: I don’t condone lying to anyone, especially the FBI. But there is a much different version of events than the one spun by prosecutors in court filings, Democrats in Congress, or most reporters. An account kept from the public for more than 18 months.

It comes from one of the FBI’s primary sources in the Papadopoulos case, European professor Joseph Mifsud.

Documents I obtained from sources show Mifsud told the FBI in February 2017 that his contacts with Papadopoulos a year earlier, during the 2016 presidential campaign, were mostly innocuous. He made that point both in an FBI interview and a follow-up email to agents.

He described the contacts as an academic exercise in pursuit of peace, not a global plot to hijack the election. And he went out of his way to say there was no talk of sinister cybersecurity intentions such as a plot to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails.

“I reaffirm that the content of our conversations was always on wide geo-strategic issues,” he wrote FBI agents on Feb. 11, in an email that was quickly sent to the very top of the FBI’s counterintelligence division. Mifsud sent the email just hours after agents interviewed him.

He said the conversations mostly centered around “how the Trump then-campaign team looked to develop a conversation on Europe/UK … and with Russia” and “the fallout in policy in the deteriorating relationship between the major countries in the world today.”

Geez, sounds more like a topic for a Miss Universe contestant’s essay on world peace than the opener of a James Bond movie.

Mifsud acknowledged he introduced Papadopoulos to a contact in Russia, whom he identified as Dr. Ivan N. Timofeev, who he described as “a director of a think tank in Moscow with strong links with a number of U.S. institutions.”

But, again, he stressed the contacts were mostly academic in nature.

“Dr. Timofeev and I have been collaborating for a number of years on a number of geo-strategic issues, mainly pertaining to publications/training for diplomats/international experts on energy security and their implications on international relations,” Mifsud told the FBI. “After speaking to both individuals, I put them in contact with each other.”

“The intent of that ‘bridging’ was specifically of a geo-political nature and not tied in any way or form to cybersecurity,” Mifsud insisted to the FBI. “It was to create a mutual understanding on world affairs and how we can contribute to peace and stability.”

The mere fact Mifsud felt compelled, after his FBI interview, to write a follow-up email — repeatedly insisting that his contacts with Papadopoulos were innocuous — is an indication he didn’t like the way the FBI portrayed events.

In fact, at one point in his email, he bold-faced a single sentence for emphasis: “Cybersecurity was never the direct object of any of our communications.”

“A ‘new’ possible relationship of the U.S. with Europe, the UK, Russia, the Middle East and energy diplomacy was always the focus of our discussions as international affairs experts,” he wrote in the final line of an email to the FBI.

Mifsud even told the FBI that, after his interview, he went back to his documents to make sure there wasn’t something more sinister: “The issues that you specifically asked me about in your questions this morning did not feature in any of our email conversations as far as I can see.”

The Mueller team’s indictment paints this very differently.

It claims Papadopoulos lied about when he started advising Trump’s campaign and when he learned from his contacts with Mifsud that Russia may have dirt on Clinton in the form of emails. Prosecutors also accused him of trying to leverage his contact with the Russians he met through Mifsud to get Trump to possibly visit Russia and Vladimir Putin during the election season.

Let’s take those allegations in order. Lying to the FBI, yes, is a crime. But having a foreigner tell you a foreign country may have dirt on a candidate is not a crime. And neither is trying to arrange for a presidential candidate to visit a foreign country.

If those were crimes, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee would have to be locked up for their efforts to pay British agent Christopher Steele to get dirt on Trump from Russian figures, including one former Russian intelligence operative, according to handwritten Justice Department notes.

And all the aides who held backdoor conversations with foreign leaders to arrange for Barack Obama’s pre-2008 election trip to Afghanistan, the Middle East and Europe would have to go to jail, too.

That makes no sense.

Mueller’s prosecutors recently urged the court to send Papadopoulos to prison, saying his false statements “impeded the FBI’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.”

More specifically, the prosecutors argued: “The defendant’s lies undermined investigators’ ability to challenge the Professor or potentially detain or arrest him while he was still in the United States.”

There’s just one problem with that argument.

The FBI had known for months — at least since July 2016, when an Australian diplomat reported it — that Papadopoulos boasted about the Russian dirt on Clinton. And agents knew before they interviewed Mifsud in February 2017 that Papadopoulos had gotten that information from the professor.

So the bureau had plenty of time to question Mifsud about the claims. Furthermore, it easily could have called the professor back and interviewed him anew, if it had doubts; after all, an Italian news outlet had no problem locating Mifsud and interviewing him last November.

Papadopoulos’ wife has suggested prosecutors took advantage of her husband to criminalize conduct that wasn’t criminal. It isn’t the first time we’ve heard that.

A few months after former Trump national security adviser Mike Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI, we learned the agent who conducted that interview did not believe Flynn was deceptive.

Okay, so the agent who interviewed Flynn says he didn’t lie but prosecutors nonetheless charged him with lying. And the professor in direct contact with Papadopoulos says he wasn’t involved in some big cybersecurity scheme to hijack the election but, rather, wanted a more peaceful world.

It makes you wonder if what has gone on so far is not the pursuit of criminal conduct but, instead, is the criminalizing of perfectly normal political conduct.

John Solomon is an award-winning investigative journalist whose work over the years has exposed U.S. and FBI intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks, federal scientists’ misuse of foster children and veterans in drug experiments, and numerous cases of political corruption. He is The Hill’s executive vice president for video.