WASHINGTON — He is an otherwise obscure Maltese professor with sketchy academic credentials who has stayed out of public view for more than a year and a half. But on Wednesday, Joseph Mifsud was briefly given a high-profile supporting role at Robert S. Mueller III’s congressional appearance, with his name coming up at least 20 times.
To Democrats, Mr. Mifsud is among the clearest links between Russia and the Trump campaign during the 2016 presidential election. Said by the Mueller report to have “connections to Russia” and identified by James B. Comey, the former F.B.I. director, as a “Russian agent,” Mr. Mifsud was a critical figure in the earliest days of the F.B.I.’s investigation and led to the bureau’s decision to open an inquiry into possible ties between the Trump campaign and Russia.
In April 2016, he told one of the Trump campaign’s foreign policy advisers, George Papadopoulos, that Russia had thousands of emails with compromising information on Hillary Clinton, setting off a chain of events that eventually led to Mr. Mueller’s investigation.
But to Republicans, he stands out because Mr. Mueller, the special counsel, did not charge him with a crime. That may be a sign, they say, that he was actually working for the United States or other Western intelligence agencies in what they suggest was an effort to derail Donald J. Trump’s ascension to the White House. Among some supporters of Mr. Trump, Mr. Mifsud is portrayed as a key player in an untold story about how Mr. Mueller’s investigation was built on false and politically motivated premises.
“He really is the epicenter. He’s at the origin of this. He’s the man who supposedly knows about Clinton’s emails,” Representative Devin Nunes of California, the ranking Republican in the House Intelligence Committee, said on Wednesday. He added, “I’m struggling to understand why you didn’t indict Joseph Mifsud?”
During the nearly seven hours Mr. Mueller spent testifying before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, Mr. Mifsud’s name was invoked repeatedly as Republicans sought to turn attention away from questions about potential obstruction of justice by Mr. Trump and toward their theories that the original F.B.I. investigation was flawed and biased.
“Is Mifsud Western intelligence or Russian intelligence?” asked Representative Jim Jordan, Republican of Ohio.
The extent of Mr. Mifsud’s academic affiliations is murky. At one point, he was a professor at the London Academy of Diplomacy, according to Mr. Mueller’s report on the 2016 election interference. He later worked as a “full-time professorial teaching fellow” at the University of Stirling in Scotland, a spokesman for the university has said.
According to a biography of him posted to the European Parliament’s website, he is in his late 50s and has a degree in education from the University of Malta. The Mueller report suggested that he might have been in a relationship with a Russian citizen whom he introduced to a member of Mr. Trump’s campaign as having ties to President Vladimir V. Putin.
At one point, Mr. Mifsud worked for the government of Malta. Mr. Mifsud also appears to have long supported Mr. Putin and regularly went to meetings of the Valdai Discussion Club, an annual conference in Russia that Mr. Putin routinely attends.
Prosecutors said Mr. Mifsud’s interest in Mr. Papadopoulos was elicited when he learned of his connections to the Trump campaign. Mr. Papadopoulos was interviewed repeatedly by F.B.I. agents as they investigated Russia’s interference in the campaign.
Democrats said the Republican effort to turn attention away from Mr. Trump by focusing on Mr. Mifsud would not work.
“It is ludicrous on the face of it,” Representative Jim Himes, Democrat of Connecticut, said after the testimony concluded. “The Republicans have 1,000 conspiracy theories, and this is one of the more fantastical ones.”
Mr. Papadopoulos pleaded guilty to lying to investigators about his contacts with Mr. Mifsud, which began in March 2016 and continued for months. And these lies, prosecutors have said, impeded them from getting information from Mr. Mifsud that was important to their investigation.
“Those statements hindered investigators’ ability to effectively question Mifsud when he was interviewed in the lobby of a Washington hotel on Feb. 10, 2017,” the Mueller report stated. Prosecutors said Mr. Mifsud left the United States on Feb. 11, 2017, and has not returned since.
During his interviews with the special counsel’s investigators, Mr. Mifsud conceded that he introduced Mr. Papadopoulos to two Russian citizens, but he denied that he knew about the hacked emails before they were released, telling La Repubblica that it was “nonsense.”
He portrayed himself as something very different from the epicenter of the Mueller investigation.
“The only thing I did was to facilitate contacts between official and unofficial sources to resolve a crisis,” he said at the time. “It is usual business everywhere. I put think tanks in contact, groups of experts with other groups of experts.”
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