From NBC/NJ's Adam Aigner-Treworgy and NBC's Aram Roston and NBC/NJ's Athena Jones
On a conference call intended to discuss recent reports that a foreign policy advisor for the Obama campaign met with Syria's foreign minister last month in Damascus, McCain senior foreign policy advisor Randy Scheunemann and Rudy Giuliani were instead peppered with questions about their personal histories and McCain's VP selection process.
The call began with the two surrogates railing against Daniel Kurtzer, an advisor to the Obama campaign and a former American ambassador to Israel under the Bush administration and Egypt in both the Clinton and Bush administrations. The McCain campaign charged that Kurtzer should have disclosed the meeting earlier and seized on a New York Sun quote, in which Kurtzer, reportedly said, "None of us thought we were being used or abused, but we will see over time."
The Obama campaign said Kurtzer was attending a conference as a "private citizen" and was not sent by Obama.
The first question came from Ron Kampeas from the JTA, a Jewish news wire service, who asked if there was an "imbalance" on the call due to both participants foreign lobbying and legal involvement. First Kampeas asked about Giuliani's legal dealings with Citgo, the Chavez government and the Saudis -- all of which Giuliani said were "factually inaccurate."
Then the he began to ask about Scheunemann's extensive lobbying involvement with the country of Georgia when he was abruptly disconnected. Scheunemann nonetheless addressed a portion of his question, saying he "got the gist of his statement if not his question."
"First of all, I'm not a paid lobbyist for Georgia, I haven't been for some time," Scheunemann said -- he stopped working for Georgia earlier this year, according to the AP. "But the difference between being a lobbyist and going on covert trips that are only disclosed later through aggressive media reporting is night and day. The only reason everybody can talk about what business activities I've done in the past is because it's been fully disclosed. It's been fully addressed by this campaign."
Scheunemann's lobbying firm Orion Strategies has been paid more than $800,000 since 2004 by the Government of Georgia, according to records at the Department of Justice Office of Foreign Agents Registration. Scheunemann himself terminated his role in March 2008, the records show, and suspended his work as a lobbyist. Still, experts have alleged there is a conflict of interest for him, especially as he is still a vocal supporter for Georgia, and it's current government.
American University ethics professor James Thurber said in an interview with NBC News last week that Scheuneneman's role is problematic.
"It puts McCain in a position where he is not hearing all the positions he could be hearing," Thurber said. "It is a conflict of interest."
Thurber says even if Scheunemann no longer talks to his old company, there is a problem.
"The queston is where do the loyalties lie when you have an economic relationship with somone for several years," he said, adding that cutting off ties is not enough. "Even though you say you have a firewall between the lobbying firm and the campaign. There's not a firewall in a person's soul."
But in the conference call, Scheunemann said that the charge that his relationship with Georgia is inappropriate "continues to be pushed around by both the Obama campaign and public relations firms that are in the employ of the Russians."
"It is no secret, in fact it's known openly that I worked for the Georgians," Scheunemann said. "It was a secret until this story broke that Ambassador Kurtzer before he accompanied Senator Obama on his Middle East trip was in Syria talking to senior Syrian officials."
With regard to Kurtzer's meeting, Obama foreign policy adviser Susan Rice said there was "nothing but falsehood and distortion" in the McCain campaign's comments about the visit to Syria.
She added that whilie the ambassador was there, he had made comments -- that Syria should make progess in its negotiations with Israel -- that she hoped McCain would agree with.
Rice went on to argue that it was hypocritical for McCain's campaign to criticize the trip, since the Arizona senator himself had traveled to Syria in 1984 and met with its "terrorist-sponsoring" then-president a year after the bombing of an American Marine barracks in Lebanon.
The tough questions weren't just on foreign policy on the conference call. NBC's Kelly O'Donnell asked the pro-choice former mayor about his thoughts on McCain selecting a pro-choice vice presidential nominee.
"It would seem to me the Republican Party is not, as far as I can tell -- and I traveled to thousands of places last year -- a one-issue party, and that would just be one issue among many that would have to be evaluated by the party," Giuliani said. "But I believe the party will support Senator McCain's choice."
Giuliani said that the most important factor in the VP decision is "a person that would allow us to sleep at night knowing that we had selected someone who could immediately be president of the United States."
Before the questioning began, Giuliani had some harsh words for what Kurtzer's actions say about Obama's foreign policy.
"If Sen. Obama is truly going to bring transparency to Washington, this is surely no way to do it," Giuliani said. "And maybe this is a playing out his negotiating with dictators and people like that without preconditions."
According to the Sun, Kurtzer was acting in his capacity as a member of the American Bar Association's Rule of Law Initiative, and not as an advisor to Obama. Yet Giuliani contended that Kurtzer's actions prove Obama's inexperience.
"We live with many, many challenges, foreign and domestic," Giuliani said. "We need an experienced person, not someone like Senator Obama who is one of the least experienced candidates for president in the last hundred years, if not the least experienced. Beyond that, his actions as a candidate seem to demonstrate that."