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The investigation into Trump associates' connections to Russia has some colorful characters. Among them, Joseph Mifsud, a Maltese professor with Russian ties. Mifsud met with a Trump campaign adviser in London last year. And after that adviser pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about the meetings, Mifsud vanished. NPR's Frank Langfitt set out in London to learn more about the mysterious professor.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Mifsud was an obscure academic until he was recently thrust into the headlines.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Professor Joseph Mifsud, a middle-aged Maltese lecturer in diplomacy...
LANGFITT: Professor Mifsud met a young Trump campaign aide named George Papadopoulos last year in London.
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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Professor told defendant Papadopoulos that, quote, "they, the Russians, have dirt on her. The Russians had emails of Clinton. They have thousands of emails."
LANGFITT: That was a Fox News report, and those Clinton emails, they're at the heart of an investigation into whether the Trump campaign colluded with the Russians to try to win last year's election. In an affidavit, the FBI said Russia frequently uses intermediaries, such as professors, to help in spying operations. Mifsud has denied working with the Russians, and there's no sign he's being criminally investigated.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: Liverpool Street. Change here for the circle.
LANGFITT: But learning about Mifsud isn't easy because he seems to move around a lot. I'm here at the London Academy of Diplomacy where he worked as honorary director.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Hello, sir.
LANGFITT: Yeah, I'm with National Public Radio from the U.S. Is the London Academy of Diplomacy here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: If you'd like leave - if you'd like to leave, please, sir.
COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #1: The next station Holborn. Change here for the Piccadilly line.
LANGFITT: Now I'm at the address of something called the London Centre of International Law Practice, which is also a place where Mifsud was said to work.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Hello?
LANGFITT: Hi, I was wondering, did Joseph Mifsud work here?
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: Not commenting on that, I'm afraid.
LANGFITT: I did manage to talk to people who knew Mifsud.
DAVID HOLLEY: My name is David Holley, and I am a media safety adviser.
LANGFITT: I know Holley personally. He advises NPR with security. We met at a pub.
HOLLEY: Looking back, I would say he was a man who was - who loved talking about himself. He loved to name-drop.
LANGFITT: Holley got to know Mifsud in 2015. He says if Mifsud passed on rumors about Clinton's emails, perhaps inflated his connections to Russia, it wouldn't surprise him.
HOLLEY: And he would often say, I have to go now because I have the president of such and such a country phoning me in half an hour for advice. He seemed to me as if he was trying to let me know just how well thought of he was in the diplomatic circles, how many people he knew and how many problems he fixed.
LANGFITT: Mifsud asked Holley to draw up a personal safety course for students at the Academy of Diplomacy.
HOLLEY: When I came to submit this proposal, he had disappeared. He'd gone.
LANGFITT: Holley says the academy shut down last year. Dominic Fenech teaches history at the University of Malta where Mifsud used to teach.
DOMINIC FENECH: I recall him as a charming person, pleasant to talk to, he's a smooth talker.
LANGFITT: But Mifsud left in 2007 after an investigation into his handling of finances, which the university said was inconclusive. Mifsud took over as president of the fledgling Euro-Mediterranean University in Slovenia. When he resigned four years later, the university said he owed more than $50,000 in expenses. At the time, Mifsud called it a private matter that was only made public for political reasons.
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COMPUTER-GENERATED VOICE #2: This is the Vodafone voicemail service for...
LANGFITT: Mifsud didn't respond to phone calls and email messages requesting comment for this story. While the FBI suggests Mifsud might have been a go-between for Russian intelligence, others are skeptical.
MARK GALEOTTI: Looking at the whole Mifsud-Papadopoulos story, I mean, in many ways, it does seem very reminiscent of the kind of thing you see in Moscow all the time.
LANGFITT: Mark Galeotti is a senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague.
GALEOTTI: Which is precisely people trying to big themselves up, people trying to suggest that they have close friends in the presidential administration and so forth because that's often how you get your foot in the door, how you get people to try and start thinking of you as credible.
LANGFITT: Galeotti says some of these people keep an eye out for foreigners who could be useful to the Kremlin, like a young aide to a Republican presidential candidate.
GALEOTTI: So you have a lot of what you could think of almost as political entrepreneurs busy trying all kinds of things, and 9 out of 10 will never come to anything.
LANGFITT: Did the meetings between Professor Mifsud and George Papadopoulos amount to something? Special prosecutor Robert Mueller has yet to say. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, London.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANNY BROWN'S "DANCE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.