President Weighing Panel Appearance, Laxalt Says
President Reagan, distressed by the increasingly destructive impact of the Iran- contras scandal on his ability to lead the nation, has begun to consider the rare step of going before a congressional committee and testifying about his role in the affair, Sen. Paul Laxalt (R-Nev.) said Wednesday.
Laxalt, a longtime Reagan confidant and the general chairman of the Republican Party, said he personally urged the President to “make a dramatic appearance before the Senate Intelligence Committee to remove any doubt about his role” in the affair and try to limit “the political damage it is doing to him and the presidency.”
Only three times before in American history--including an appearance by Gerald R. Ford after he pardoned Richard M. Nixon in the aftermath of Watergate--has a President crossed the line separating the branches of government and appeared as a witness before Congress.
Reagan, who is understood to be especially concerned by public opinion polls showing many Americans believe he is lying about the Iranian arms scandal, is being urged to testify in an open session as a way of clearing the air about the tangled arms-and-hostages deal with Iran and the diversion of funds to the anti-Sandinista guerrillas in Nicaragua.
Despite the fact that Donald T. Regan, the embattled White House chief of staff, has said there is “no need” for Reagan to testify, Laxalt, in an interview with The Times, declared:
“I spent a lot of time with the President, one-on-one, and he feels badly that people aren’t believing him. I strongly suggested he testify and he said he found the suggestion very interesting. He’s considering it.”
Laxalt, who had a lengthy luncheon session with the President at the White House on Tuesday, also said that despite continuing pressure by some advisers for the President to oust Regan and generally shake up his Administration’s top leadership, Reagan gave no indication that any major personnel changes are planned.
“And Don Regan is as secure as anybody I know,” Laxalt said. “It’s been the President’s judgment to keep him, and Don’s a very proud Marine who won’t be driven out.
“I’d bet dollars to doughnuts he doesn’t leave between now and the time Congress comes back in January, but he could go through the State of the Union address and into February and decide he’d outlived his usefulness and take a walk. Still, I see no signs he’s leaving at all.”
Pressing for Shake-up
Meanwhile, Stuart K. Spencer, a Los Angeles political consultant and longtime personal adviser to the President, was in Washington Wednesday pressing for an Administration shake-up that sources said would go far beyond replacing Regan.
Spencer arrived here with “a laundry list of things he wants the Administration to do to help get the Iran arms controversy” behind it, said a source close to Spencer.
Along with another key personal adviser to Reagan--Washington lobbyist and former Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver--Spencer has been planning to meet with the President and First Lady Nancy Reagan at the White House this week to discuss recommendations for dealing with the scandal.
Neither Deaver nor Spencer was available for comment Wednesday, but a source close to Spencer said: “Just getting rid of Regan and Casey (CIA Director William J. Casey) would not help that much and Stu knows it. He knows that for the President to get his Administration off to a fresh start after this Iranian arms and contras mess, there’s got to be more changes and more steps taken to get all the facts out.”
Seek Regan’s Ouster
Many of Reagan’s longtime advisers outside the Administration have been pressing for Regan’s ouster on grounds he has been generally inept in advising the President and has failed to protect him in the mushrooming scandal.
There also has been pressure to oust the 73-year-old Casey because of questions about his role in the Iranian arms deal but there were indications Wednesday that Casey, who was hospitalized Monday after suffering cerebral seizures, may be unable to continue as CIA director for medical reasons.
Government sources said Casey is understood to be suffering from a brain tumor. The presence of a tumor was said to have been confirmed after he underwent a CAT scan on Wednesday. Casey’s doctors reportedly did not know how serious a problem it might be or how it might be treated, though NBC News reported Wednesday evening that Casey will undergo neurological surgery as early as today.
Laxalt said Casey “is incapacitated and I hear some troubling things about his maybe having a brain tumor.” And a longtime Reagan confidant from California said: “It’s pretty clear Bill won’t be back in the saddle again.”
Sources in the intelligence community speculated that if Casey does not resume command of the CIA, his most likely successor from within the community would be Robert M. Gates, the CIA’s deputy director. Gates, 42, is a career CIA officer who served on the National Security Council staff during the Carter Administration.
Laxalt’s suggestion for Reagan to testify before Congress clashes with the advice of Regan, who testified before the committee in a closed-door session Tuesday and later told reporters there was “no need” for the President to testify.
“That would be unheard of, for the President to testify,” Regan said. “I testified. Everyone else in the Administration that’s been asked has testified, so there’s no need for the President to testify.”
Ford Agreed to Testify
Although constitutional separation of powers bars Congress from compelling a President to testify, President Ford agreed to testify before Congress in 1974 to explain his pardon of former President Nixon.
According to the Library of Congress, President Woodrow Wilson testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (at the White House) on Aug. 19, 1919, and President Abraham Lincoln, according to several contemporaneous witnesses, testified before the Joint Committee on the Conduct of the War in 1862, during the Civil War.
Laxalt said that testimony by Reagan and two officials who lost their White House posts over the Iranian arms controversy--National Security Adviser John M. Poindexter and his aide, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver L. North--could “quickly clear the air” and allow the Administration to turn its attention to other pressing issues.
If they testified, he said, media interest in the controversy would “lessen almost overnight” and the select congressional committee hearings scheduled to begin next January “would become almost moot.”