Mueller's Probe Is Even More Expansive Than It Seems

The special counsel’s team has interviewed a number of big names. But their interest in more obscure players tells a story, too.

Special Counsel Robert Mueller leaves the U.S. Capitol Building after meeting with members of the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 2017. (Aaron P. Bernstein / Reuters)

FBI agents working for special counsel Robert Mueller allegedly detained a lawyer with ties to Russia who is closely associated with Joseph Mifsud, the shadowy professor who claimed during the election that Russia had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton.

The revelation was made in a book co-written by that lawyer, Stephan Roh, and set to be published next month. “The Faking of RUSSIA-GATE: The Papadopoulos Case” is the latest in a stream of books aiming to capitalize on the chaos of this political moment. But it sheds new light on the expansive nature of Mueller’s investigation into Russia’s election interference and possible ties between President Donald Trump’s campaign team and Moscow. It also highlights Mueller’s interest in answering one of the probe’s biggest outstanding questions: whether the campaign knew in advance that Russia planned to interfere in the election.

Mifsud is one of several key figures among a complicated cast of characters shaping the Russia probe. In the spring of 2016, Mifsud told a young Trump campaign aide, George Papadopoulos, that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of “thousands of emails,” according to the special counsel’s statement of the offense against Papadopoulos, who was indicted for misleading federal agents about his conversations with Mifsud. Russia had hacked the Democratic National Committee months earlier, and would soon break into Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta’s inbox. It is still not clear how Mifsud seemed to know in advance that Russia sought to compromise Clinton’s candidacy.

The lawyer allegedly questioned by Mueller’s team, Stephan Roh, is a German multimillionaire with ties to Russia. He hired Mifsud as a “business-development consultant” in 2015, and is Mifsud’s “partner and best friend” and “the money behind him,” Papadopoulos’s wife, Simona Mangiante, who worked for Mifsud briefly, told me. Roh’s wife is Olga Roh, a Russian fashion designer who appeared on the British reality TV show Meet the Russians. He’s also in the nuclear-energy business: He acquired a small British nuclear consulting firm from scientist Dr. John Harbottle in 2005, according to the BBC, and invited Harbottle on an all-expenses paid trip to Moscow shortly thereafter, Harbottle told the outlet. Harbottle declined the offer because he “smelt a rat,” he said, and was then fired. Within three years, Severnvale Nuclear Services’ turnover went from under $100,000 to $44 million, per the BBC.

Roh intersected with Mifsud at two institutions: the now-defunct London Academy of Diplomacy and Link Campus University, a private institution in Rome that Roh co-owns, and where Mifsud taught briefly. In April 2016, Mifsud and Roh spoke on a panel together at the Kremlin-backed Valdai Club—a think tank that is close to President Vladimir Putin and hosts him every year for a keynote address. The club is described in the book as “one of the most influential Russian think tanks in Moscow, maybe even the most prestigious.”

Roh and his co-author Thierry Pastor, who also knows Mifsud, write in the book that, upon arriving in New York City with his family in October 2017, “one of the co-authors” was “fished from the passport control” line at John F. Kennedy airport while his family “was retained with armed police force.” (Photos posted by Roh’s wife on social media in October 2017 suggest she was visiting New York in late October.) He was then interrogated for “hours,” they write, by “a team of Special Counsel Robert Mueller investigating Russia-Gate.” The book alleges that he and his family were then “observed, followed, and taped, at every moment and every place in New York” by the FBI and that his family was assigned to “special rooms at the hotel” while security personnel “patrolled the corridors.”

It is unclear whether Roh was actually surveilled after being interviewed—a spokesman for the special counsel’s office declined to comment. The book further alleges that Mifsud is not a Russian spy but is actually “deeply embedded in the network of Western Intelligence Services.” Papadopoulos, too, is a “western intelligence operative,” the authors assert, who was “placed” in the Trump campaign by the FBI. In that sense, the book is similar to one written recently by another obscure player detained and questioned by Mueller’s team earlier this year: Ted Malloch, a controversial London-based academic with ties to Trump associates Roger Stone and Nigel Farage. In his book The Plot to Destroy Trump: How the Deep State Fabricated the Russia Dossier to Subvert the President, Malloch argues that the apparent covert intelligence activity connected to the Trump campaign was not Russian, but Western.

Roh and Pastor’s prevailing thesis is that Papadopoulos’s “mission” was to bring Trump into contact with Russian officials. “That’s nuts,” Papadopoulos’s wife Mangiante told me in response to the book’s theory. “From ‘coffee boy’ to spy … George has been upgraded!” she joked, referring to the Trump campaign’s claim that Papadopoulos, a young energy consultant who joined the Trump campaign in March 2016, was so low-level that he was basically a “coffee boy.”

Papadopoulos was indicted in October for lying to federal agents about his contact with Mifsud and is now cooperating with Mueller’s investigation. He landed on the FBI’s radar after he drunkenly told an Australian diplomat in May 2016, one month after meeting with Mifsud, that Russia had dirt on Clinton, according to The New York Times. The diplomat purportedly relayed the details of his conversation with Papadopoulos to Australian government officials, who in turn flagged it to the U.S. government shortly after news surfaced that the DNC had been hacked. Papadopoulos’s inadvertent disclosure, combined with the massive data breach, is apparently what triggered the FBI’s Trump-Russia probe.

According to the book, Mueller interviewed another Mifsud associate in the summer of 2017: Ivan Timofeev, a program director at a Russian government-funded think tank who Mueller described in court filings as “connected to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.” Mifsud connected Timofeev to Papadopoulos by email in the spring of 2016, according to the filings. Over lunch earlier this year, the book says, Timofeev described being stopped by the FBI at JFK in “mid-2017” and questioned about his relationship with Papadopoulos, the DNC hacks, and about the “thousands of emails with dirt on Hillary Clinton.” His cellphone and laptop were seized, too. Timofeev told the FBI that Papadopoulos “put forth the idea of a possible visit to Russia by Mr. Trump or his team members,” but that such a meeting never materialized. He told Papadopoulos that he was awaiting “an official request from the Donald Trump Campaign,” according to the authors.

Mifsud has virtually disappeared since his name was made public late last year. In their book, Roh and Pastor say that they last spoke to Mifsud by phone on January 13, 2018. Mifsud told them that he had been “set up,” according to the authors, and called Papadopoulos an “agent provocateur.” Mifsud had gone into hiding, he told them, after “the head of the Italian secret services contacted the President of LINK Campus, Vincenzo Scotti,” and recommended that Mifsud “disappear.” Since then, Mifsud “has been requested to hide, not to communicate, and not to speak to the press,” Roh and Pastor write. “He has been ‘put away’ and threatened to stay quiet.”