By Giselda Vagnoni and Angelo Amante
ROME (Reuters) - In recent weeks, U.S. Attorney General William Barr, with backing from President Donald Trump, has stepped up an inquiry into the origins of an FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election.
Trump has complained his campaign was improperly targeted by U.S. intelligence and law enforcement agencies to hamper his chances of winning. An investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller concluded that Moscow interfered in the election to help Trump, but said there was not enough evidence to establish a criminal conspiracy with Russia.
As part of his inquiry, Barr has asked Australian and British justice officials for assistance and visited Italy twice, meeting intelligence agents in Rome on Aug. 15 and Sept. 27 to learn more about people mentioned in Mueller's report.
A central figure is Joseph Mifsud, a 59-year-old Maltese academic involved in law and diplomacy education programmes in London and Rome, who also had contacts with Russian officials and met with George Papadopoulos, a former foreign policy adviser to the Trump campaign, on several occasions.
Following are some key questions about Mifsud, an obscure professor who has not been seen in public for nearly two years and who remains a focus of attention in Washington.
WHY IS MIFSUD SO IMPORTANT?
The Mueller report describes a series of meetings between Mifsud, then a professor at the now-defunct London Academy of Diplomacy, and Papadopoulos in the spring of 2016.
They first met in mid-March at Link Campus, a private university in Rome to which Mifsud was affiliated. Papadopoulos, then 28, was visiting Link to meet officials as part of his role at the London Centre for International Law Practice, a quasi-think-tank based in London that he had recently joined and which Mifsud was also affiliated to.
Mueller's report says Mifsud, who was living in London at the time and had established a number of Russian contacts, became more interested in Papadopoulos after the American mentioned that he had been hired to join the Trump campaign as an adviser specialising in energy policy.
Over the next month, Mifsud and Papadopoulos held a series of meetings and had regular phone and email contact, with Mifsud offering to introduce Papadopoulos to European leaders and officials with connections in the Russian government.
The critical meeting came on April 26, the day after Mifsud had returned to London following a 10-day visit to Moscow.
According to the Mueller report, Mifsud told Papadopoulos he had met with high-level Russian government officials during his trip and learned that the Russians had obtained "dirt" on Trump's election rival Hillary Clinton in the form of "thousands of emails".
That would make him the original source of one of the key allegations against the Trump campaign investigated by Mueller.
In a meeting with a Western diplomat 10 days later, Papadopoulos suggested the Russian government could help the Trump campaign via the anonymous release of information that would be damaging to Clinton, the report says.
WHERE IS MIFSUD NOW?
Mifsud hasn't been seen in public since November 2017, when he was spotted at Link Campus and spoke briefly to a reporter from Italy's la Repubblica newspaper. In the interview he denied telling Papadopoulos anything about Russian "dirt" on Clinton and dismissed his Russian contacts as meaningless.
Another Italian newspaper, Il Foglio, reported in April that he was holed up in an apartment in Rome - equidistant between the U.S. and the Russian embassies - for seven months during 2017-2018, with the rent paid by Link. But the contract expired in July or August last year and he hasn't been seen since.
The same newspaper published a picture earlier this month of Mifsud sitting in his former lawyer's office in Zurich, holding a copy of the Zurichsee-Zeitung newspaper. Il Foglio said the photo was taken on May 21, 2018.
The lawyer, Stephan Roh, told Reuters he had not had any contact with Mifsud for a while, and said a London-based law firm was now representing him. That firm declined to comment.
Former associates of Mifsud's said they had had no contact with him since late 2017. His daughter is said to be still living in London, while his ex-wife lives in Malta.
WAS HE WORKING FOR AN INTELLIGENCE AGENCY?
In an op-ed in the Washington Post in May, former FBI director James Comey referred to Mifsud as a "Russian agent", although he did not say why he believed that to be the case. Mueller's report does not directly make the same allegation. For his part, Papadopoulos has repeatedly suggested, without presenting any evidence, that Mifsud was working for Western intelligence agencies in an effort to tarnish Trump.
Gianni Pitella, a former member of the European Parliament and an Italian senator for the centre-left Democratic Party, attended the same conference in Rome where Mifsud and Papadopoulos first met in 2016. He described Mifsud as sociable and well-connected, but not someone you would expect to find at the heart of international intrigue.
"Mifsud is a kind-mannered person with a vast culture. He is a great storyteller, one who has relationships with academic authorities," he told Reuters. "My impression is that he was very good at weaving together relationships, but had nothing to do with people involved in espionage."
A senior Maltese official who worked with Mifsud earlier in his career said he found Mifsud hard to believe, while another Maltese associate described him as a "bluffer".
"I simply do not believe he had Russian contacts, especially at a high level. He was personally a nice guy to talk to, I would even say he was a good connector, but nothing high-level," the official said. "He was also disorganised, he would start one thing, then move to another before completing the first. I laugh when I read what is said about him."
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
Barr and his associate, veteran U.S. prosecutor John Durham, last visited Rome on Sept. 27 and met Italian intelligence officials to learn more about Mifsud and his connections, an intelligence source told Reuters.
The source said it was possible Barr or Durham might return to Italy to pursue inquiries further, suggesting the Mifsud trail is not dead. The U.S. Justice Department has not confirmed the Italian visits and has not said if Barr is planning a trip to Italy in the future.
Barr has also contacted authorities in Britain and Australia to seek assistance. Australia is relevant because the foreign diplomat Papadopoulos met in London and told about the Russian "dirt" was then-ambassador Alexander Downer.
"The Australian government will use its best endeavours to support your efforts in this matter," the Australian ambassador to Washington wrote to Barr on May 28, 2019.
"While Australia's former High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, the Hon. Alexander Downer, is no longer employed by the government, we stand ready to provide you with all relevant information to support your inquiries."
British authorities have been more circumspect. A spokesman for the government said: "Investigations in the United States are a matter for U.S. authorities. We won't comment on the ongoing investigations."
(Additional reporting by Mark Hosenball, Crispian Balmer and Luke Baker; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Alex Richardson)