GiuseppeConteBy Eric J. Lyman

ROME - The comings and goings in the Italian capital in recent weeks look a lot like a who’s who list of allies and surrogates for Donald Trump.

Among those who have passed through Rome since August: attorney general Bill Barr, U.S. attorney and Barr lieutenant John Durham, former Trump deputy assistant Sebastian Gorka, first son-in-law Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and first daughter Ivanka Trump have all spent time in Rome.

Add to that list former Trump advisor 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.

“Rome has always been on the political fault lines for many different reasons,” said Francesco Galietti, founder 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 visits is Joseph Mifsud, a mysterious Maltese influence peddler whose name appeared more than 60 times in the Mueller Report. Mr. Mueller reported that in 2016, Mr. Mifsud met with former Trump advisor George Papadopoulos in Rome, telling Mr. Papadopoulos that Russia had damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

But multiple media reports show that Mr. Trump’s allies claim Mr. Mifsud was mischaracterized in the Mueller Report and that he is actually an intelligence asset employed by officials from the Barack Obama administration to cause trouble for Mr. Trump. That is a point that Mr. Barr, Mr. Durham and others have reportedly been looking into.

“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 followed developments related to Mr. Mifsud case closely.

The problem is that Mr. Mifsud’s whereabouts have 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.

But 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 conman in 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.”

For its part, Italy has tried to keep itself at an arm’s length from the scandals swirling around Mr. Trump in recent months. Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, has stressed as often as possible that he never discussed the Russia probe with Mr. Trump or any of his surrogates and that Italian intelligence services played no role in the events that led to the 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.

According to Mr. Basile, Italian leaders are trying to walk a thin 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 elections."
Photo: Giuseppe Conte, Italy’s prime minister, has stressed as often as possible that he never discussed the Russia probe with Mr. Trump or any of his surrogates and that Italian intelligence services played no role in the events that led to the Mr. Mueller’s probe.
Credit: Courtesy of Giuseppe Conte's official Twitter account.

Story/photo published date: 11/06/19 
A version of this story was published in The Washington Times.
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