Simona Mangiante, the girlfriend of ex-Trump campaign aide George Papadopoulos, also worked for a mysterious Russia-linked Maltese professor. No wonder Robert Mueller’s investigation came knocking
Simona Mangiante never expected that a flirtation that began on LinkedIn would lead to a subpoena to appear before federal agents working for Robert Mueller, the US special counsel leading an investigation into Donald Trump and the Kremlin.
But the knock on her door arrived last October, on the day that Mangiante’s boyfriend, George Papadopoulos, a former Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. Under the terms of his plea deal, Papadopoulos also agreed to cooperate in the ongoing criminal investigation.
In an interview with the Guardian in Rome, Mangiante declined to get into specifics about what exactly the FBI asked in the two-and-a-half-hour interrogation, or any of the details of Papadopoulos’s ongoing discussions with federal agents.
What you need to know about the Trump-Russia inquiry
But she did shed new light on the mystery man who has emerged as a central figure in the Trump investigation: Joseph Mifsud, the Maltese professor who is not mentioned by name in the Papadopoulos indictment – but who prosecutors have alleged was a key middleman between the foreign policy aide and top Russian officials.
A key question now facing Papadopoulos is what – if anything – he told key Trump campaign officials after Mifsud, a professor he had befriended in March 2016, took an intense interest in him after a meeting in Rome.
Prosecutors have alleged that a man – now known to be Mifsud – told Papadopoulos that the Kremlin had “dirt” on Hillary Clinton, Trump’s rival, and was secretly sitting on “thousands of emails” covertly hacked from the Democratic party.
Two weeks after learning about the hack, in May 2016, Papadopoulos attended a meeting with Trump and other senior aides in Washington. Did he tell anyone from the campaign about Mifsud’s message? And if so, what did they do about it?
Amid these questions, Mangiante’s own relationship with Mifsud has gotten lost in the shuffle. A native of Caserta, near Naples, she insists that she never played a part in Mifsud’s murky world. But she acknowledged to the Guardian that she may have inadvertently been sucked into a Russian intelligence plot.
Long before Mifsud and Papadopoulos ever met, it was Mangiante who was introduced to the mystery professor while she was working in Brussels, in the European parliament, as an attorney specialising in child abduction cases.
She was introduced to Mifsud in about 2012 by Gianni Pittella, a well-known Italian MEP who in 2014 became president of the European parliament and who served as the leader of the Socialists and Progressive Democrats group. “I always saw Mifsud with Pittella,” she says. Pittella had no comment.
Mangiante worked for two high-powered European parliament officials, Mairead McGuinness – a vice-president – and McGuinness’s Italian predecessor Roberta Angelilli. She was also an administrator to the home affairs committee under the presidency of Martin Schulz, then a German MEP and now the leader of Germany’s Social Democrats.
When her contract expired, Pittella suggested she go to work for Mifsud in London, a city she loved. The professor offered her a job in 2016 at the important-sounding London Centre of International Law Practice. She was recruited, she now thinks, because of her extensive Brussels “contacts book”.
The job had looked like a promising career move. The reality, however, was a let-down.
The office in a smart Georgian terrace overlooking Lincoln’s Inn Fields in London was distinctly cramped. There was a single table, around which Mangiante and her colleagues perched. They brought their own laptops. The place was “very messy”, Mangiante said. “It felt like something was weird.”
Mifsud’s diplomatic activity, Mangiante now believes, was a facade. “I never met any Russians there … But the centre certainly wasn’t what it pretended to be.”
She described Mifsud as “quite intelligent”. He spoke to her in fluent Italian, had a good sense of humour and boasted of his political connections around the world.
She added, however: “He is sneaky, someone you can’t read. He was vague about everything. He wouldn’t answer questions directly. I could never understand what was behind it.”
At around the same time that she started the job, in September 2016, Mangiante received a message on the LinkedIn social network from Papadopoulos. Papadopoulos had worked at the law centre briefly before joining Trump’s campaign.
“He said ‘I see you work at the centre’. He told me he liked my picture,” she said. The exchange was “really casual”. An attempt to meet fell through. She says she never mentioned Papadopoulos to Mifsud. Nor did they discuss Russia.
Meanwhile, Mangiante was not happy with her work in London. The entire institution seemed “fake”, “artificial”, with Mifsud interested solely in organising political meetings. “I didn’t smell a culture of academia,” she said.
In late October 2016 Mangiante fired off an angry note to Mifsud, complaining she had been tricked into working for nothing. She was paying rent on her shared South Kensington flat from savings.
Mifsud replied at 1.30am on 29 October 2016 from his Stirling University email address, writing in Italian:
I hope you are fine … I was in Moscow … Now I’m in London. Can we meet in person? I’m here until Tuesday night.
They never spoke again.
Mangiante quit her post there after three months, in November 2016. Mangiante says a colleague of Mifsud’s promised her a £2,500-a-month salary but paid her nothing. Her official iPhone stopped working.
Mifsud has told the Daily Telegraph he has nothing to do with the Kremlin and denies wrongdoing. “I have a clear conscience,” he said. Still, there are photos of him meeting a succession of Russian dignitaries, including Moscow’s ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko.
In the meantime, Mangiante’s romance with George began. After several unsuccessful efforts to get together in London, they met in March 2017 in New York. They hit it off, began dating and fell in love, she says.
By this point the FBI had interviewed Papadopoulos in connection with the collusion investigation. Papadopoulos gave federal agents a false account of his meetings with Mifsud. After an initial interview in January 2017, he deleted his Facebook account and changed his cellphone number.
Then the story broke. Soon after Papadopoulos’s indictment and guilty plea became public, Mifsud vanished. He hasn’t been seen at the Link Campus university in Italy, where he was an academic visitor. The London Academy of Diplomacy and the law centre have closed.
On the day Papadopoulos pleaded guilty, Mangiante was at her boyfriend’s family home in Chicago. There was a ring at the door. A casually dressed man informed her that he was a federal agent. He was serving her with a subpoena from Mueller.
“I was shocked. I was scared and nervous,” she said. “I’m a lawyer myself. I couldn’t see any grounds for that.”
The letter was from the “special counsel’s office, Department of Justice”. It said that “a grand jury is conducting an investigation into a possible violation of federal criminal laws”. It asked for her “cooperation in this matter” and to make herself available for interview. One of Mueller’s assistants, Aaron Zelinsky, signed off with the words “very truly yours”.
Mangiante decided not to hire a lawyer after discovering they cost $800 an hour. She turned up alone at the Chicago FBI headquarters – “a huge intimidating grey building”.
On the walls were posters of America’s most wanted violent criminals. She was shown into a small room by the FBI agent who had served the subpoena, this time wearing a tie. With him was a female colleague.
Among other things she would not discuss with the Guardian, the FBI was interested in her relationship with Papadopoulos. Was it genuine? “They asked: “Do you love him?” I replied: “Yes”. They replied: ‘He [Papadopoulos] is lucky.’”
Recently Mangiante has given US TV interviews defending Papadopoulos, who is back in Chicago on bail. Her active media strategy is not without risk, with some wondering why she has chosen to speak out. Sceptical Twitter users accused her of sounding Russian during an appearance on ABC News – an idea she finds ridiculous.
Mangiante says she has been to Russia once – for a child protection conference in St Petersburg – and never visited Moscow.
Her parents – a professor and a teacher of English – are “scared” about her predicament, which she too finds somewhat bizarre. “I just happened to meet all these people,” she says.
Mangiante says she felt compelled to do something after senior Republicans dismissed Papadopoulos as a “coffee boy” who had exaggerated his role.
This is a lie, she says. “He was involved at the highest level. He wrote speeches for Trump. He set up the candidate’s meeting with Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi,” she says.
Of Papadopoulos’s decision to cooperate with the FBI, she says: “He’s put himself on the right side of history. It’s quite brave. He wasn’t obliged to cooperate. He decided to cooperate.”