Conference Call-Gate

We strive to break news, but Wednesday – at least for a fleeting moment in the blogosphere – JTA was the news.

The story started early in the day, with a New York Sun article by Eli Lake, reporting on Obama adviser Daniel Kurtzer’s previously unreported July trip to Syria. Lake’s story was pretty straightforward, making clear that Kurtzer is an unpaid adviser to Obama, and was not in Syria representing the campaign but in his role as a member of the board of the American Bar Association’s Rule of Law Initiative. During his trip, Kurtzer said, he told the Syrian foreign minister that no matter who the next U.S. president is, he would only make an Israeli-Syrian deal a priority if the two sides make significant progress.

“I urged him to move ahead in the Israel-Syria negotiations as much as possible so that whoever is the next president would not start from too far down the track,” Mr. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel, said yesterday in a phone interview. “I did not say anything about Obama or McCain. I said whoever is the next president is not going to want to inherit a process that isn’t going anywhere.”

John McCain’s campaign seized on the article, which included the detail that the conference Kurtzer attended was co-sponsored by an organization chaired by “Dr. Fawaz Akhras, a London-based cardiologist and the father of the Syrian president’s wife, Asma al-Assad.” The McCain campaign held a conference call with reporters in the afternoon featuring former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann.

Things got a little testy when JTA’s Washington Bureau chief Ron Kampeas raised the inconvenient fact that the two McCain surrogates who were bashing Kurtzer for benefiting, however indirectly and minimally, from foreign largess and associating with the Syrians have their own relevant histories. According to several media reports, as Kampeas pointed out, Giuliani’s law firm represented an oil company controlled by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Saudi Arabia’s oil ministry, and Scheunemann until earlier this year lobbied on behalf of Georgia.

Other reporters on the call say Kampeas was cut off mid-sentence as he was pushing his line of questioning. Giuliani and Scheunemann both fired back.

[UPDATE: CNN has the audio.]

Several blogs picked up on the exchange, including MSNBC’s FirstRead:

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 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.”

And this from Politico’s Ben Smith (headline: Cutting off the JTA):

Rudy Giuliani’s appearance on a McCain conference call got off to a rocky start when Ron Kampeas … compared an Obama advisor’s trip to Syria – the subject of the call – to Giuliani’s and McCain adviser Randy Scheunemann’s paid work on behalf of Georgia (in Scheunemann’s case) and Venezuela’s Citgo and the Saudi government (in the case of Giuliani’s law firm).

“You’re making an issue of him taking a hotel room?” Kampeas asked – and then dropped off the call mid-sentence.

“I think they cut me off,” he said in an e-mail just now.

Scheunemann noted that his lobbying contract, unlike Obama advisor Daniel Kurtzer’s trip to Syria, was publicly disclosed and not “covert.” Giuliani said that Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan government, is an “American company.”

“I never represented Saudi Arabia,” he said.

The Associated Press reported that Bracewell & Giuliani, a Texas-based energy firm, has represented Saudi Arabia.

Click here, here, here and here for other media reports suggesting that Kampeas did have it right when it came to Hizzoner’s past legal/lobbying activities. As for Scheunemann’s comments, it’s not at all clear that Kurtzer was in any way keeping his trip a secret, nor that the trip compares to working on behalf of a foreign government. But, more interesting, is that neither Giuliani or the McCain family seem to be abiding by the principle of providing the public with information about their business contacts.

Even as he himself was campaigning for president, Giuliani was not forthcoming with information about his client list. And McCain’s wife, Cindy, has said that she will not provide complete details about her family fortune (a particular interesting twist considering that revelations about her business dealings with failed savings & loan bank owner Charles Keating certainly didn’t help McCain as he struggled to save his political career in the late 1980s and early 1990s).

Back to Kurtzer… today the New York Sun has an editorial criticizing the Syrian trip. And Shmuel Rosner has a lengthy post over at Commentary weighing in on the issue.

A final thought … I wonder if this whole thing was Eli Lake’s revenge for my making him laugh during our high-school production of “Fiddler on the Roof” (I was the rabbi, he was the rabbi’s son).

And if you still have a moment, and are interested in a more thoughtful/substantive look at Kurtzer’s worldview, check out this Kampeas article.

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