White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. assumes that the Iran- contra affair is not over, but said Sunday he also is "convinced that we are not likely to have any big, new, devastating development" when former National Security Council aides Oliver L. North and John M. Poindexter testify before Congress.
"I don't believe for one moment that they're going to try to fabricate or fudge the facts in order to save their own skins," Baker said as he discussed prospective testimony by the two former National Security Council aides during a televised interview on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley."
Both Took Fifth
Poindexter, a Navy rear admiral, and North, a Marine lieutenant colonel, both took the Fifth Amendment in earlier appearances on Capitol Hill, but arrangements have been made for them to testify under limited grants of immunity from prosecution for acts they may divulge. Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger said during an interview Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press" that Pentagon lawyers had researched possible use of a presidential order directing them to testify without immunity and found that it would have been unconstitutional and, therefore, unenforceable.
Baker said he has "looked very hard" for hitherto undisclosed facts bearing on the affair during his three weeks in the top staff job at the White House, but has found none. In the absence of "major new occurrences," he said he believes that Reagan will be able to "continue with the national agenda and his presidential agenda."
Baker warmly praised Reagan's performance last Thursday night at a news conference--his first in four months--that was dominated by questioning on the Iran-contra issue. But House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) complained that other important matters--notably tax and budget questions--had been crowded out by questioning in which Reagan admitted that secret negotiations with Iran had boiled down to "strictly arms for hostages."
Trickery by Iran
Wright said he doubted the accuracy of an unattributed article in the current U.S. News & World Report magazine which maintains that Iran deliberately encouraged U.S. officials to believe a change was imminent in the Tehran regime in a scheme to trick the Reagan Administration into sending arms Iran needs for its long war with Iraq.
"I think the President really was trying to get the hostages back," Wright said during an interview on the CBS-TV "Face the Nation" program, "and I think it was a bad judgment call, a bad policy, to send arms to Iran."
Wright criticized Reagan's determination, reiterated in his opening statement at Thursday's news conference, to reject increased income tax rates as a means to bring the federal deficit within the $108-billion limit set by the Gramm-Rudman law for the current fiscal year, and renewed his call for a freeze on further reductions in taxes on personal incomes over $100,000 a year.
Once Backed Tax Hike
Baker, who indicated in 1985, when he was a Tennessee senator, that he would support an income tax boost to deal with the deficit, refused Sunday to be drawn into a discussion of the topic.
"I agreed to be the President's chief of staff, and the President's program is my program," he said. "And I have no other program except the President's program."
On other topics, Baker:
--Said he "would not be surprised" if there was a summit meeting in Washington this year between President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev. Baker emphasized that he had "no information at all" to support his view that a 1987 summit is "a good possibility." But he cited as supporting evidence that an invitation to Gorbachev to visit the United States remains open; that the Soviet government has accepted the basic U.S. position on removal of intermediate-range missiles from Europe, and has separated the issue from unresolved questions raised by Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, known as "Star Wars," and that the two nations are moving toward agreement on the "zero option" of eliminating nuclear weapons.
Changes of Soviet Policy
"I think in view of all those changes of Russian policy toward American positions, that it would be likely that General Secretary Gorbachev and President Reagan would get together. And I hope so," Baker said.
--Expressed an interest in exploring new formats for meetings between the President and reporters as alternatives to the infrequent full-dress news conferences conducted in prime television time in the East Room of the White House. While the big televised productions are "probably a good idea, periodically," Baker said he hoped "the press would have more opportunities to talk to the President, perhaps not in the East Room . . . and perhaps not in prime time." Furthermore, he said without mentioning the President's four-month isolation during the Iran-contra affair: "Ronald Reagan is awfully good at talking to the press."
--Deplored his own observation as he flew to Washington to take over his new job that First Lady Nancy Reagan, "when she gets her hackles up . . . can be a dragon." That quotation, he said, "may be at the top of the . . . long and growing list of things I should never have said." Meanwhile, he said, he talks "every day or so" to Mrs. Reagan, whom he has known since 1966.
"Of all the President's advisers," he said, "she is the closest. She is probably as sensitive to political matters as anybody I know. And she is an important part of Ronald Reagan's life."