- - Wednesday, November 6, 2019

ROME — The comings and goings in the Italian capital in recent weeks read like a who’s who list of allies and surrogates for President Trump.

Among those who have passed through Rome since August: Attorney General William P. Barr, U.S. District Attorney and “Russia-gate” investigator John Durham, former Trump White House aide Sebastian Gorka, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and first son-in-law and senior presidential adviser Jared Kushner and his wife and first daughter, Ivanka Trump.

Add to that list former Trump adviser Steve Bannon, who advises a far-right Italian political party and has tried to set up a populist academy outside Rome, and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, whose wife, Callista, is the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican.

Russia and Ukraine may be the stars in the drama in Washington over hacking the 2016 election and trying to game the 2020 vote. But Italy, for good or bad, is cast in a meaty supporting role.

“Rome has always been on the political fault lines for many different reasons,” said Francesco Galietti, co-founder and CEO of Policy Sonar, a Rome-based political risk consultancy. “These figures aren’t all coming through town for the same set of reasons, but these visits do show that Rome still has a certain kind of relevance and that it could even play an important role in the U.S. presidential elections next year.”

One key figure in at least some of the stream of visitors is Joseph Mifsud, the mysterious Maltese professor and influence peddler whose name appeared more than 60 times in the Mueller Report on Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential vote. Special counsel Robert Mueller reported that Mr. Mifsud met in 2016 with former Trump adviser George Papadopoulos in Rome, letting Mr. Papadopoulos know of reports that Russia had damaging information on Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.

The fateful meeting took place at Link Campus University, a small for-profit college in Rome that was once the Italian branch of the University of Malta.

Mr. Trump’s allies insist Mr. Mifsud’s role was mischaracterized in the Mueller Report and that he is actually an intelligence asset employed by other foreign interests, the Obama administration and the intelligence services to smear Mr. Trump and undermine his candidacy. In one version of the conspiracy, Mr. Mifsud was in fact an Italian intelligence agent used by the CIA and FBI in their campaign against then-candidate Donald Trump, a version that Mr. Papadopoulos has said he suspects is true.

“That’s why Barr came to Rome twice, why Durham came to Rome: to look for corroborating information regarding Mifsud’s role in the 2016 election,” said Massimo Basile, an Italian researcher and journalist who has closely followed developments related to the Mifsud case.

Uncertain role

Italian officials confirm that Mr. Barr traveled to Rome to meet privately with the heads of Italy’s spy agencies and encourage Italian intelligence and national security officials to cooperate with the Durham probe.

The problem is that Mr. Mifsud’s whereabouts has been unknown since 2017. Mr. Basile said he believes Mr. Barr and Mr. Durham managed to find some information about Mr. Mifsud’s role and that a report based on their findings could be released in the coming weeks.

Other key observers are not so sure there will be much value in what Mr. Mifsud might have to say. Carlo Bonini, an author and journalist who has written extensively on intelligence issues and on Mr. Mifsud, characterized the 59-year-old as a con man who has gone into hiding until he can find a way to “monetize” his situation.

“Nobody knows exactly what Mifsud knows, but he is a desperate man and a man who needs money,” Mr. Bonini said. “I don’t know how much value what he has to say would eventually have.”

Italy’s government has tried to distance itself from the scandals swirling around Mr. Trump for fear of being dragged into the withering American political crossfire like Ukraine has.

Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said repeatedly that he never discussed the Russia-Mueller probe with Mr. Trump or any of his surrogates and that Italian intelligence services played no role in the events that led to Mr. Mueller’s probe.

“Our intelligence service is completely unrelated to the so-called ‘Russia-gate,’ and that has been made clear,” Mr. Conte told Italian reporters after Mr. Barr’s visit a month ago.

Mr. Trump, who faces an impeachment inquiry in the House for what critics say was a bid to solicit Ukraine’s help in investigating a political rival, does not appear ready to let Rome off the hook entirely.

Defending Mr. Barr’s recent Rome visits, Mr. Trump told reporters last month that “the word is — and you read it in the same papers that I do — that they did go to other countries to try and hide what they were doing. Italy may have been one of them.”

Mr. Basile said Italian leaders are trying to walk a fine line when it comes to U.S. politics.

“Italian officials will reveal what they know, but beyond that they can’t take sides,” Mr. Basile said. “The U.S. is a close ally, but we have no idea who will be president” after the 2020 election.

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