The Other Side of Trump’s Shadow Diplomacy: After Ukraine, Quid Pro Quo in Italy Too?

The White House asked the Italian government for support in its “investigation on the investigators” to prove the existence of a Democratic plot against Donald Trump in 2016. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte secretly cooperated and then received a crucial public endorsement from Trump in the midst of a political crisis. The next episode of the impeachment story will be staged not in Kyiv, but in Rome.

 

Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and Donald Trump. Photo by the EOPOTUS/EOP via Wikipedia [Public domain].

 

President Donald Trump’s reaction to the impeachment inquiry against him has been to launch an “investigation into the investigators.” This counter-investigation intends to prove that Trump cannot be charged with any responsibility for an alleged plot to subvert the 2020 elections because he has only been reacting to a plot to subvert the 2016 election (and his presidency) through special counselor Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference. Whether you believe Trump or not, the next episode of the impeachment story will not be staged in Ukraine, but in Italy.

 

US Attorney for the District of Connecticut John Durham’s report to Attorney General William Barr could have major political implications in Italy and also shed some light on the president’s parallel diplomacy. News from Italy in the last two months suggest major political interference by the White House in a foreign country’s domestic policy and potential quid pro quo, similar to Ukraine. Nevertheless, the complexities of Italian politics have obscured the relevance of the shadow foreign policy that Barr conducted in Rome on Trump’s behalf.

 

One week ago, the news that Barr’s inquiry into the 2016 election has become a “criminal investigation” broke only a few hours after the Italian Prime Minister, Giuseppe Conte, told the press the exact opposite: “It is not a criminal investigation, it is only an informal inquiry.” Did Barr lie to Conte during meetings between the two in August and September? Or did Conte lie to the Italian media?

 

“Giuseppi” and the Two Secret Meetings in Rome

 

Italian and American outlets reported that, in 2019, Conte secretly met with Barr twice. The first time was on August 15; the second, on September 27.  

 

At the time of their August meeting, Conte didn’t know if his tenure as prime minister was over. Italy was in the middle of an unexpected political crisis: The League, Matteo Salvini’s far-right party, suddenly withdrew its support for Conte’s government on August 8. Salvini asked for an immediate election, but the President of the Republic, Sergio Mattarella, had a constitutional obligation to explore whether a different parliamentary majority was possible. Eventually, two former enemies, the Democratic Party (PD) and the Five Star Movement, decided to form an anti-Salvini coalition to avoid elections. The new coalition was formalized on August 28.

 

 

On August 24th, Conte met Donald Trump at the G7 meeting of Biarritz. Three days later, Trump tweeted that he hoped that “Giuseppi” (sic) Conte would remain prime minister. (That tweet became so viral in Italy that Conte’s nickname in newspapers and on social media is now “Giuseppi.”) In Italy, people were very surprised by such an open and timely show of support. Nobody knew at the time that, ten days earlier, Conte had arranged an unusual meeting between Barr and Italian Intelligence directors to discuss what had happened in 2016. Many newspapers have now started wondering if, like Ukraine, that tweet was a quid pro quo: Did Trump offer his political support to the prime minister in exchange for Italian intelligence work on the alleged 2016 Democratic plot?

 

 

Conte arranged a second meeting on September 27, after he was confirmed as prime minister of the new center-left coalition. This second meeting was kept secret as well; the prime minister did not even share the information with his new government allies.

 

After news of these secret meetings broke, opposition parties asked Conte to explain his unusual choices to the Italian parliament.

 

After a two-and-a-half-hour testimony in front of the Parliamentary Committee that supervises the secret services’ activities, Conte held a press conference on October 23. He said that the Italian intelligence did not find any evidence of Italian responsibility in an alleged plot to harm Trump’s presidential campaign in 2016. Nevertheless, a few moments later, the Department of Justice confirmed a criminal investigation that could lead to charges against US intelligence officers. 

 

President Trump and his supporters are obsessed with what happened in Italy almost four years ago. They are convinced that if they can prove US secret service members misbehaved in Italy, then all the allegations involving Russian support for Trump’s campaign would vanish. 

 

Mifsud’s Link with the Italian Intelligence Community 

 

According to the Mueller report, the then-secret FBI investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 US elections began in the summer of 2016 after Australian ambassador Alexander Downer told federal agents about a previous conversation with a Trump campaign adviser, George Papadopoulos.

 

In the spring of 2016, Papadopoulos was a young fellow at the London Centre of International Law Practice, a think tank with many ties to the intelligence community, when he first met Maltese professor Joseph Mifsud in Rome. Mifsud would later inform him that the Russians had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton. Papadopoulos immediately informed the Trump campaign.

 

This connection was one of the first elements that special counselor Robert Mueller looked into when investigating the alleged “collusion” between Russian operatives and the Trump campaign. Papadopoulos met Mifsud for the first time in Rome on March 14, 2016, after he was invited to join the Trump team and tasked with improving the relationship between the United States and Russia. 

 

At the end of April 2016, Mifsud informed Papadopoulos that the Russians “had emails of Clinton.” When he was investigated by the FBI in 2017, Papadopoulos lied multiple times to minimize the importance of his communications with Mifsud and falsely stated that he received the information about the Russians and Clinton’s emails when he “wasn’t even on Trump’s orbit.” For his false statements, Papadopoulos was sentenced to 14 days in prison in September 2018.

 

Mifsud’s role is crucial for Barr’s investigation, and the Italian government never explained what happened to him after he disappeared. Mifsud was deeply connected with Link University, a private institution based in Rome where intelligence operatives teach classes and secret service directors are frequent speakers. Mifsud was unknown to the general public, but Link fellows and their political counterparts trusted him enough to invite him to public panel discussions in Italy and abroad.

 

During the Russiagate investigation, Mifusd secretly lived in an apartment in Rome. Link University paid the rent until May 2018. This is one of the last pieces of news we have on Mifsud. It doesn’t look like a coincidence that we completely lose track of Mifsud after both a change in government and the head of secret services: In June 2018, the new populist government led by League and Five Star takes power, appointing Giuseppe Conte as prime minister. A few weeks later, in August, Matteo Salvini and Conte abruptly asked the Italian Foreign Intelligence director, Alberto Manenti, to resign.

 

 

In 2016-2017, Italian Prime ministers Matteo Renzi (who resigned in December 2016) and Paolo Gentiloni both had a very pro-Obama and anti-Russia posture. Trumpsters do not believe that a Putin operative, as Mifsud looked like to Papadopoulos, could have been working on an anti-Clinton plot while based in Rome, in a university where his colleagues were Italian intelligence officials.

 

It is easier to imagine, for Trump and his team, that Mifsud was ultimately working for Italian or British secret services with the mission to create a connection between Russian operations in the United States and the 2016 Republican campaign.

 

Nevertheless, whether Mifsud worked for the Russians or for an Anglo-Italian intelligence operation, it would not change the fact that Putin’s operatives actually used Facebook to spread fake news, hacked the Clinton campaign’s computer, and used WikiLeaks to release illegally obtained data to subvert the 2016 election. 

 

The First Request from Conte 

 

When the White House asked for Conte’s support in investigating the 2016 election, Trump was still facing the risk that the Mueller report may lead to criminal charges against him and his team. According to Conte, the request for Italian cooperation on Barr’s Russiagate counter-investigation dates back to June 17, 2019. Trump used Barr for shadow-diplomacy with Italy just as he used Rudy Giuliani to convince the new Ukrainian president to open a corruption investigation against Joe Biden and his son Hunter.

 

According to Conte’s version, Barr asked for the support of Italian intelligence to investigate American agents operating in Italy during 2016 and 2017. There is only one reason why the Italians could possess more information than the Department of Justice and the CIA on American operatives in Italy: if Italian intelligence was part of the operation as well. Conte has never mentioned whether the object of the investigation was Mifsud’s disappearance.

 

It would not be the first time that Italian secret services helped the United States on similar matters. On the eve of the Second Iraq War, on February 17, 2003, the Italian secret service cooperated with the CIA for an illegal “extraordinary rendition of an Egyptian” citizen, Abu Omar, who was suspected of extremism. American agents kidnapped him in Milan and, with the help of Italian colleagues, flew him to Egypt to “interrogate” him. At the same time, the Italian secret service also cooperated with US intelligence agencies to produce fake evidence of the existence of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

 

Donald Trump and world leaders at the G7 meeting in Biarritz, Aug. 24, 2019 (Official White House Photo by Joyce Boghosian via Flickr)

 

Conte’s Inconsistencies 

 

On October 9, two weeks after the meetings with Barr, CIA director Gina Haspel came to Rome to meet the three Italian intelligence directors: Gennaro Vecchione (DIS, the intelligence supervisor), Luciano Carta (AISE, the foreign agency), and Mario Parente (AISI, the internal secret service). Surprisingly, Haspel also arranged a meeting with former AISE director Alberto Manenti. Both Parente and Manenti were in office in 2016 when the alleged cooperation between US and Italian intelligence might have happened, and during the mysterious hiding of Mifsud in Rome in 2017 and 2018. If Conte proved to Barr on September 24th that nothing had happened in Italy in 2016, why did CIA director come to Rome two weeks later? 

 

 

The full content of Conte’s hearings in front of the parliamentary intelligence committee is classified, and his press conference was far from clarifying. Taking his words at face value, we can identify three claims:

 

1) He secretly cooperated with Barr’s investigation because, if the White House asks for help, Italy has to help—even if the objective is to find elements for a plan whose ultimate goal is to secure the White House for Trump in 2020.

 

2) There is no proof that something wrong happened in Italy—and if that’s true, then Barr and his chief investigator Durham are bluffing.

 

3) For three months, from June 24 to September 27, Conte secretly investigated whether two PD-led governments conspired with President Obama and Hillary Clinton to stop Trump in 2016. In the very same period, Conte made important arrangements with two other major players. First, he formed a new government thanks to a deal inspired by Matteo Renzi, one of the two prime ministers whose job he was investigating. Second, he appointed Paolo Gentiloni, the other Democratic Party former prime minister, to a key position in the new European Commission. Any evidence of wrongdoing by Renzi and Gentiloni would now make the Italian government explode and cause Conte to lose his job.

 

Perhaps things will become clearer after the release of the report that inspector general Michael E. Horowitz is currently writing for Attorney General Barr, as a part of Trump’s “investigation on investigators.” For the moment, it is very difficult to understand who is telling the truth about what the United States asked of Italy, or about what the Italian government did. What seems certain is that someone is lying. 

 

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