According to U.S. court documents unsealed this week, a foreign policy adviser to the campaign of President Donald Trump said he was in contact with Russian officials and had been told during the campaign that Moscow had “dirt” on Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton and “thousands of her e-mails.”
The documents related to the guilty plea of former adviser George Papadopoulos -- the first admission of guilt to emerge from U.S. Special Counsel Robert Mueller's probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election and potential collusion by Trump associates -- do not provide the names of Papadopoulos’s contacts.
But the identities of two of these individuals appear to have been confirmed -- a man described in court documents as “the professor” and another as a “connection” to the Russian Foreign Ministry. The name of another -- a woman Papadopoulos initially believed was Russian President Vladimir Putin’s niece -- remained unclear as of October 31.
Here's a look at key individuals with ties to Russia in the October 5 plea deal signed by Papadopoulos, whose arrest in July on charges of lying to FBI agents only came to light after court documents were unsealed on October 30, and what we know about them.
According to the court documents, Papadopoulos met this man at least three times and remained in e-mail contact with him for several months. Their first meeting -- in Italy -- took place in March 2016 after Papadopoulos learned that he would be joining the Trump campaign as a foreign policy adviser, the documents say.
“The professor claimed to have substantial connections with Russian government officials” that Papadopoulos believed “could increase his importance as a policy adviser to the campaign,” the documents state.
Papadopoulos says in his plea agreement that “the professor” told him at a meeting in London in late April 2016 that he had recently returned from a trip to Moscow and learned that Russia had “dirt” on Clinton "in the form of 'thousands of e-mails.'"
The documents describe the man as “a citizen of a country in the Mediterranean” and a “professor of diplomacy based in London.” And they say the “professor” told Papadopoulos that he was flying to Moscow for a meeting of the Valdai Discussion Club, a prominent Kremlin-backed international policy forum.
A number of Western media outlets on October 30 deduced from this information that the man in question is professor Joseph Mifsud, a citizen of Malta and an "honorary director" of the London Academy of Diplomacy.
Mifsud has confirmed to The Daily Telegraph that he is the London-based professor described in the U.S. court documents but denied doing anything wrong. “I have a clear conscience," the British newspaper quoted him as saying.
Mifsud indeed has documented contacts with well-connected people in Russia’s political class. In January 2016, Aleksei Klishin, a former Russian parliamentarian and professor at an elite Russian university run by the Foreign Ministry, spoke at the London Academy of Diplomacy at Mifsud’s request.
Mifsud also met with Aleksandr Yakovenko, the Russian ambassador to Britain, in May 2014.
The identity of this woman remained unclear as of October 31. In the court documents, she is identified as “the Female Russian National.”
Papadopoulos was said to have been introduced to the woman at a March 24, 2016, meeting together with the professor. The American initially believed the woman was “Putin’s niece,” according to the court documents, though this turned out to be false. Following that meeting, Papadopoulos e-mailed senior Trump campaign officials and said that the subject of their discussion had been “to arrange a meeting between us and the Russian leadership to discuss U.S.-Russian ties under President Trump.”
Papadopoulos and the woman proceeded to communicate by e-mail and Skype. Two weeks after their first meeting, Papadopoulos wrote to her and received a reply in which the woman said she “would be very pleased to support your initiatives between our two countries.” Later that day, she wrote that she had “already alerted my personal links to our conversation and your request” and that “we are all very excited by the possibility of a good relationship with Mr. Trump. The Russian Federation would love to welcome him once his candidature would be officially announced,” according to the court documents.
The documents state that Papadopoulos “believed that the Female Russian National had connections to high-level Russian government officials and could help him arrange a potential foreign policy trip to Russia.”
They add that during the campaign, Papadopoulos “e-mailed and spoke over Skype on numerous occasions with the Female Russian National about the potential foreign policy trip to Russia.”
In his plea agreement, Papadopoulos admitted to lying when he told the FBI that the extent of his communication with the woman consisted of e-mails containing banalities like, “Hi, how are you?”
'Russian MFA Connection'
The court documents state that in April 2016, the professor introduced Papadopoulos via e-mail to an “individual in Moscow” identified as a “Russian national connected to the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs” and, alternately, as the “Russian MFA connection.” While this individual's name is not provided, details of his interactions with Papadopoulos appear to indicate that the person is Ivan Timofeyev, director of programs at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC), a Russian government-backed think tank.
That Papadopoulos had communicated with Timofeyev has been widely known since August, when The Washington Post reported on the contents of e-mails between the two men in which the possibility of a visit by Trump to Moscow was discussed. The Washington Post report cited an e-mail to Papadopoulos from Timofeyev in which the Russian political scientist said officials at the Russian Foreign Ministry were amenable to a visit by Trump and that the campaign should submit a formal letter on the matter.
Days later, Timofeyev said in an interview with the Russian news portal Gazeta.ru that the correspondence came at the initiative of Papadopoulos and that the two men “even talked several times over Skype but never got into any specifics.”
The court documents unsealed this week note e-mail and Skype contacts between Papadopoulos and the “Russian MFA connection,” and the e-mails they describe resemble those reported by The Washington Post in August. The section of “false statements” Papadopoulos admitted making to the FBI includes his failure to inform investigators that the professor had introduced him to the “Russian MFA connection” despite being asked if he had met Russian nationals.
Timofeyev said in his August interview with Gazeta.ru that he and Papadopoulos “had mutual academic acquaintances.”
In April 2016, at the time of the events described in the court documents, Timofeyev hosted a Valdai-sponsored discussion about the world oil market in which Mifsud participated. A video of the two men speaking is available on YouTube:
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova took to Facebook on October 31 to criticize what she portrayed as a “circus” atmosphere surrounding the Papadopoulos guilty plea. She added that information about Timofeyev is available on his organization’s website and not at her ministry.
The Russian Foreign Ministry is a founder of the RIAC and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov serves as chairman of the think tank’s board of trustees.
Lavrov told reporters in Moscow on October 31 that he is not acquainted with either Papadopoulos or Timofeyev but that he saw nothing wrong in their discussions of a possible meeting between the two sides, the state-run RIA Novosti news agency reported.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders in Washington on October 30 described Papadopoulos as a minor figure in the Trump campaign, adding that he "reached out" to arrange a meeting with Russian contacts "and nothing happened beyond that."
"Which, I think, shows, one, his level of importance in the campaign; and two, shows what little role he had within coordinating anything officially for the campaign," Sanders said.
Trump himself wrote on Twitter on October 31: "Few people knew the young, low level volunteer named George, who has already proven to be a liar."
Trump referred to Papadopoulos as "an oil and energy consultant, an excellent guy" at a meeting with The Washington Post editorial board in early 2016 at which he announced some members of his foreign policy advisory team.