The mysterious Mister Mifsud and why no one wants to discuss him
Joseph Mifsud is the name of the generally unknown character in the Russia investigation came up, over and over, in the House committee hearings with former special counsel Robert Mueller. Republican Representative Jim Jordan 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 Soze of the hearings. Keyser Soze was the mysterious figure in the film “The Usual Suspects.” Another character in the film, Verbal Kint, explained to an FBI agent that Soze 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 Soze 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 the live coverage of hearings, saying that Republicans “presented things, frankly, we have not talked about much on CNN.” Despite the nonstop coverage of the Russia investigation, most news shows have rarely discussed the allegations linked to Mifsud.
Certain subjects are rarely visited by CNN or other networks, at least not substantively. The media largely dismisses the fact that the Clinton campaign also solicited political dirt from foreign intelligence sources, including from Russia, through investigator and former British spy Christopher Steele and the research firm Fusion GPS. Few programs mention that Glenn Simpson, a cofounder 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 in June 2016.
Many figures are now household names, like 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 Soze. “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he did not 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 a 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 former 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 American government. 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 Russians.
Yet, Mifsud appears to be there at the genesis. It is curious 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 report indicates Mifsud lied repeatedly to investigators on sensitive national security issues, but Mueller did not charge him with a single count. Cooperating witnesses were sentenced for lying, but Mifsud was not. If he perhaps acted on behalf of American officials to create the foundation for the Russia investigation, then that raises a host of other questions.
As acknowledged by Gergen, this is all very interesting and was not 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 that there is a consistent effort to preserve a narrative that the Russians interfered in the 2016 election to help Trump, which was true. However, it is not the only story here. 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, bias against Trump by key players in the Russia investigation is treated as unfortunate or irrelevant. There is certainly every reason to be concerned that these same key players used people like 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 campaign staff, the media would hardly have been so cavalier.
That is how we end up with the mysterious Mister 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. He was supposed to investigate all Russian interference in the election, 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 his appointment. 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,” Verbal Kint told the FBI agent that another character always says, “I don’t believe in God, but I am afraid of him.” Kint then says, “I believe in God and the only thing that scares me is Keyser Soze.” Soze was fearful precisely because he was so obscure.
Democrats have made Mifsud scary in the same way. He could just be a rumor spreading and 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 do not know. That, and the fact that no one on the former special counsel 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.
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