How George Papadopoulos Was Recruited By the Russians

The court papers that spell out the nature of the crimes that George Papadopoulos committed don’t tell the whole story. That’s understandable. They’re mainly concerned with explaining how and when Papadopoulos lied to federal investigators rather than providing a complete narrative of events. But there’s quite a story to tell.

A good place to start is with a comprehensive timeline of events reporters with the USA Today put together. The world first learned the name ‘George Papadopoulos’ on March 21st, 2016, when Donald Trump listed him as a foreign policy advisor during a meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post. However, Papadopoulos knew he would be joining the campaign no later than March 6th, when he had a conversation with Sam Clovis who told him that a “principal foreign policy focus of the campaign was an improved U.S. relationship with Russia.”

At the time, Papadopoulos was living in London, but on March 14th he was in Rome, where he met with a professor named Joseph Mifsud. The court papers don’t explain how this meeting took place or in what context. They merely state that the professor wasn’t initially impressed with Papadopolous but took a great interest in him once he learned that he’d be serving in an advisory capacity for the Trump campaign. After striking up a friendship, the two would correspond often and meet together in London on several occasions.

The professor disappeared from London when his name surfaced in the court papers, but he was tracked down in Rome and interviewed. Most of what he has to say is transparently self-serving and untruthful, but perhaps his account of how he met Papadopolous isn’t entirely inaccurate:

“[Papadopoulous] came here in Italy, in Rome, with other seven experts of international relations working for the London Centre of International Law Practice. We were dining and, if I remember well, he announced that we [sic] would join Trump’s electoral campaign team. After that, we kept in touch via email or when we subsequently met in person.

Prof. Mifsud is listed as the director of international strategic development at the London Centre of International Law Practice, but foreign policy experts in the United Kingdom seem to have never heard of the organization. Nor have they heard of the “now-defunct London Academy of Diplomacy, where Mifsud is said to have served as ‘honorary director’ before it closed.”

In fact, while it has been widely reported that Mifsud is a professor at the University of Stirling in Scotland and the school has confirmed that they hired him in May, no one seems to have seen him there. He has no office. He has taught no classes.

[H]e is not named on the university’s list of experts and the university press office refused to say how often he is on campus, where a reporter on the student newspaper said he does not even maintain an office.

“There is no evidence Professor Mifsud has even been to the university since joining the staff in May,” said Craig Munro, a reporter at the campus newspaper, Brignews. “He doesn’t have an office here and is based in London. We haven’t been able to find a single student who has met with Professor Mifsud or attended any lectures by him at Stirling.”

Tom Rogan of the Washington Examiner discovered something interesting about Prof. Mifsud and his role with the now-defunct London Academy of Diplomacy. In October or November of 2014, Mifsud made an appearance at American University in Washington, D.C. As can be seen on a video of his talk, Rogan explains, Mifsud “expounded on his now-shuttered Russian intelligence front, the London Academy for Diplomacy (LAD) and encouraged students to join it.”

Early into his address, Mifsud asked the audience whether they had heard of the “Valdai Group” (a Kremlin discussion forum). No one had…

…Yet by far the most telling part of Mifsud’s speech came at its end, when he asked if there were any students “interested in diplomacy.” For those that were, Mifsud said, “we have some funds for scholarships as well, so people who are interested… you can send me an email, I’d be very, very happy to do that… Or else if people are passing thru London who would like to come spend some time with us…”

During the question-and-answer session, Mifsud also indicated that he offered paid internships. Indicating that he had brought brochures for students to peruse, the American University representative helpfully held some up in the air.

This offer of “scholarships” to American University students “interested in diplomacy” is significant. American University attracts top students from all across the world, many of who will pursue careers in government. Mifsud’s offer thus represents intelligence recruitment 101: target government-career focused students, get them abroad and then recruit them.

The Valdai Group is a Russian think tank favored by Vladimir Putin. It’s director, Ivan Timofeev became a point of contact for Papadopoulos. In Rome, Prof. Mifsud claimed that Timofeev is the only Russian he knows and that “I am not a secret agent. I never got any money from the Russians: my conscience is clear.”

In truth, Mifsud’s connections to Russia are extensive. In addition to his longstanding relationship with the Valdai Group, he has lectured at Moscow State University and served as a moderator during panel discussions. As recently as this past September, he moderated a panel at the university’s two-day Global Studies Conference. In 2014, on behalf of the London Academy of Diplomacy, he “signed a wide-ranging cooperation agreement with the Moscow State University faculty…calling for shared research, student and teacher exchanges, the establishment of joint advanced degree programs, and a commitment to hold conferences together and to publish joint research.” Additionally, he helped Moscow State University “set up an educational center in conjunction with Link Campus University, a private university based in Italy.”

Link Campus University appears to be Mifsud’s home base when in Rome.

Despite all of this, when reporters from the Washington Post reached out to him in August, Mifsud responded in an email by insisting that he has no connections to Russia: “I am an academic, I do not even speak Russian,” he wrote.

Subsequent to their first meeting in Rome on March 14th, 2016, they met again in London ten days later. This was three days after Trump publicly announced that Papadopoulus would serve as one his advisors and five days after John Podesta’s email was hacked.  Prof. Mifsud introduced Papadopoulos to a women he described as a relative of Vladimir Putin. Papadopoulus would describe her as Putin’s niece in his correspondence with Trump campaign officials.  Here is how Mifsud explained this in Rome:

“She’s just a student, a very good-looking one. As many other students, I introduced her at the London Center: Papadopoulos was in, and I learned about his interest in her, very different from an academic one. He offered her to go with him to America. Putin wasn’t involved at all, totally an invention.”

In truth, this “very good-looking” woman isn’t related to Vladimir Putin in any way, and Mifsud denies ever saying otherwise. But Papadopoulos was convinced that he was talking to someone with a very direct line to the Russian president. He would continue to talk to her for many months in the hope of setting up an official visit to Russia for candidate Trump.

On April 18th, the professor would introduce Papadopoulos to someone else. This person worked at the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA). They would become his most important contact as he tried to arrange some kind of summit between Putin and Trump. On April 29th, Papadopoulos wrote an email to this new MFA contact, asking: “I am now in the process of seeing if we will come to Russia. Do you recommend I get in touch with a minister or embassy person in Washington or London to begin organizing the trip?”

The MFA officer responded: “I think it would be better to discuss this question with [The Professor].”

It’s pretty clear, I think, at this point, that Professor Mifsud is a Russian intelligence officer. George Papadopoulos had been unwittingly recruited. There are pictures of Mifsud with the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom, and Papadopolous was repeatedly promised a meeting with the ambassador. However, according to the court documents, this meeting never took place. It would be wrong to say that Papadopolous was strung along, however. If he had succeeded in convincing the Trump campaign to authorize a Russian trip, one might very well have taken place. The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs was willing to accept a Trump visit and they were actively solicitous of low-level “off the record” meetings, even inviting Papadopoulos to a meeting at their Moscow headquarters. In fact, on July 14th, Papodopolous wrote to the MFA officer, explaining that an August or September off the record meeting in London had been approved, and claiming that Trump’s “national chairman” would attend and expect to see an approved Putin official.

On August 15th, Papadopolous received approval from Sam Clovis to take an off the record trip, but these plans were disrupted. The day prior, the New York Times reported $12.7 million in cash had been earmarked in a Ukrainian dossier for Paul Manafort by the Russia-aligned Party of Regions. By August 19th, Paul Manafort had been forced out of the campaign. As a result, it seems like any further plans to have off the record meetings were postponed or terminated.

There’s obviously much more to discuss here, including the ramifications for the Trump presidency. Papadopolous’s activities were communicated—and in many cases approved—by the Trump campaign. Trump was directly briefed on some of them during a March 31st meeting at the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C. Jeff Sessions clearly perjured himself by not admitting his knowledge of what Papadopolous had been doing.

But I just wanted to lay this story out for you so you can see a fuller picture of what was happening. Papadopoulos wasn’t the Russians’ only successful penetration of the Trump campaign. Paul Manafort was a much bigger and most important fish. The campaign appears to have been rife with Russian-connected advisors and officials. But we have a clearer view of how the Russians operated in this case. And it’s a good spy story.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.