President Reagan said Friday that it was "my idea to begin with" for U.S. officials to raise money to support the Nicaraguan contras through such secret and unorthodox methods as soliciting funds from Saudi Arabia and other foreign countries.
Although Reagan had said as recently as Wednesday that he was unaware that Saudi King Fahd had been asked for cash, he told a special press conference for local editors and broadcasters from the Southeast on Friday that he was fully informed about all aspects of private funding for the Nicaraguan rebels with the exception of the diversion of profits from the U.S. arms sales to Iran.
"There's no question about my being informed," he said. "I've known what's going on there, as a matter of fact, for quite a long time now, a matter of years."
Not 'Just Finding Out'
He said it was incorrect "to suggest that I am just finding out, or that things are being exposed that I don't know about" concerning methods of funding the contras when Congress had restricted or banned outright direct U.S. financial aid.
In the first two weeks of testimony, the congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair have focused extensively on the Administration's efforts to raise funds for the contras from other foreign and private sources.
The White House maintains that such efforts were legal, but some congressmen have charged that they violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the Boland Amendment that banned U.S. aid from 1984 to 1986. It has been estimated that Saudi Arabia alone contributed more than $30 million to the rebels.
Reagan said he never personally "engaged in soliciting from other countries."
But, he said, "I was very definitely involved in the decisions about support to the freedom fighters--my idea to begin with."
The meeting with the regional editors and broadcasters was part of a White House effort to keep Reagan in touch with the public and the press without subjecting him to a full-scale Washington press conference, which almost certainly would be dominated by the unfolding Iran-contra controversy.
However, during a little more than 20 minutes Friday, Reagan was asked nine questions, most of which touched on the scandal that has become the most severe crisis of his six-year-old presidency.
The President continued to maintain that he never intended to pay ransom to free the American hostages in Lebanon.
He said his Administration was ready to "pay people and hire individuals" to rescue those being held captive by pro-Iranian terrorists, but he said he never would have called such a transaction "ransom."
'Some Trouble Remembering'
When asked about former National Security Adviser Robert C. McFarlane's sworn testimony that Reagan approved plans to pay $2 million in ransom for the hostages, Reagan said: "I'm having some trouble remembering that.
"But then I want to tell you that there were so many things going on and so many reports, and some of this was during the time that I was laid up in the hospital and so forth," he said. "I don't recall ever anything being suggested in the line of ransom. . . . It's possible that what we're talking about was use of money to pay people and hire individuals who could effect a rescue of our people there."
"Well, is it possible that such a conversation (as McFarlane described to the congressional Iran-contras committees) then took place, to the best of (your) recollection?" Reagan was asked.
"Yes, but I would suggest that never would it be termed 'ransom' because . . . we will not pay ransom to these--to kidnapers, because it's only going to cause more taking of hostages," Reagan said.
Not all of the questions posed to Reagan during the session concerned sensitive issues.
The second reporter that Reagan called on handed the President a card and told him: "My general manager says I can't go home unless you read this aloud."
The President chuckled and complied: "I'm Ronald Reagan. Whenever I'm in Nashville, I listen to Radio 650 WSN, the 50,000-watt blowtorch of the South."
When the questioner complained that the derisive laughter of other reporters drowned out part of his response, Reagan dutifully read it again.
United Press International later reported from Nashville that the station began airing the promotion immediately.
Reagan was not pressed for details of his assertion that he had first suggested private and third-country funding for the contras because the next questioner to be recognized asked his opinion of adding color to classic black and white films. (He said he doubted if the controversy should "be settled by government in any way.")
Later, however, Reagan was asked about a complaint by Rep. Ed Jenkins (D-Ga.) who said he was "disturbed, disappointed, shocked" to discover that shortly before Reagan vetoed a textile trade bill in 1985 that would have restricted imports from Taiwan, then-White House aide Lt. Col. Oliver L. North had solicited a $2-million gift from Taiwan to the contras.
"Anyone who would tie things like that together . . . it's totally dishonest," Reagan said.
"I don't see anything wrong with other countries that share our feeling about democracy . . . (coming) to the aid of these freedom fighters," Reagan said.
Reagan asserted that his personal popularity, as judged by a White House-sponsored public opinion poll, is still strong. That poll put him in a tie with Dwight D. Eisenhower for the highest approval rating ever for a two-term President in the sixth year of his tenure.
As for independent polls that have indicated an erosion in his popularity since the start of the Iran-contra affair, Reagan said: "It's the way questions are asked. For example, I know a question in a poll that revealed a great majority didn't believe that I had told all the truth to the people. But someone was smart enough to ask a poll of that kind another question: How many of them thought it was all right if they weren't hearing the truth? And a huge majority . . . said they believed there were things that a President shouldn't be forced to tell the people while they were going on.
"I haven't seen any evidence that I'm mortally wounded," Reagan said. "Nor do the people seem to be unhappy about what we've been doing here."
Reagan began the press conference by renewing his call for Congress to restrain domestic spending and to stop cutting the Pentagon budget. He vowed to "go to the American people" if Congress continues to evade the spending limits in the Gramm-Rudman deficit reduction measure.