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October 07, 2019

What did Conte know?

At Eurointelligence we deliberately avoid hyperventilating about political scandals, since the vast majority have no legs. But here is one we think is different.

There was something not quite right about the way the old Italian coalition broke up, and the new one was formed. Commentators put it down to Matteo Salvini making a big tactical miscalculation. While that may be true, it is certainly not the only reason why Five Star managed such a smooth change in coalition partner.

Lucia Annunziata, editor of the Huffington Post, put together a disturbing dossier of recent events. A key event that took place on August 15, in the middle of the Italian government crisis, was a visit by US attorney general William Barr to Rome. He was accompanied by US federal prosecutor John Durham. Barr had previously tasked Durham with investigating how the FBI had started to probe Donald Trump's campaign in 2016. 

The New York Times also wrote yesterday that everything about this visit was unusual - especially the fact that Durham accompanied Barr. Giuseppe Conte gave both of them direct access to Italy's security agencies, but without seeming to inform Matteo Salvini who was at that point still interior minister. It is very unusual for US law enforcement officials to have direct access to another country's intelligence services. This suggests that the issue must have been of highest importance, and that they must be probing an intelligence link. 

Annunziata suggests that the secret visit by Barr and Durham is directly related to the visitors' attempt to discredit the Mueller inquiry. What is unclear to us is Salvini's role in all of this. Salvini has also been accused of entertaining deep links with Russia and having secured Russian funding for his campaigns. At first blush, it is not clear why Trump and his men would dump him?

We think the timing is also very strange. At the time of the Barr/Durham visit, the Italian government crisis had already started. Five days later, on August 20, Conte launched an attack against Salvini in the Senate which triggered the end of the coalition. On August 24, Conte met Trump at the G7 in Biarritz, where they held a warm bilateral meeting. On August 27 Trump tweeted that he hoped Conte would remain premier. 

Ten days ago, On Sep 27, Barr and Durham visited Rome once more, and were given direct access to Italy's intelligence services for a second time. This time Conte informed his coalition partner, now the PD. 

Conte will be asked to explain his decisions to the parliamentary committee in charge of the security services. This will obviously not be a public hearing, so the potential for a cover-up is significant. 

One important question is: why did Conte not inform Salvini? 

Annunziata said she was left with a sense of unease from this affair - that there may be a direct link between the change of administration in Italy, the vote of confidence in Conte, and the attempt by the Trump administration to discredit the Mueller investigation. Most disturbing, she concludes, is Conte's silence.

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