Although Vice President George Bush and White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. have publicly positioned themselves above the controversy over Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III, their aides have privately been deeply involved in efforts to force him from office.
Advisers to both officials have spread the word among Republican supporters in Congress that the embattled attorney general, by remaining in office, is weakening the Reagan presidency and could jeopardize Bush's campaign for the Oval Office.
In fact, Baker himself presided over a heretofore-undisclosed meeting a month ago at which his advisers discussed two subjects: how to get rid of Meese and how to force strongman Gen. Manuel A. Noriega out of Panama.
"The consensus at the meeting," a Baker adviser told The Times, "was that Meese was a political liability and something ought to be done about him. It was strongly felt that he was jeopardizing the perception of the quality of justice at the Justice Department and was creating more problems on the Hill (Congress) than was generally recognized."
The vice president is reportedly "furious" over Meese's refusal to resign, and pressure for the attorney general's ouster has mounted among Republicans in Congress as advisers to Bush and Baker conduct separate drives on the issue.
Several leading GOP senators have contacted the White House and expressed concern that the Meese matter could adversely affect Republicans running for the Senate next November, said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah), and a Baker adviser who asked not to be identified.
Hatch, one of Meese's staunchest defenders, does not believe that the attorney general should resign. But he said he is convinced that Meese will act in the best interest of the President and the Republican Party and suggested that the attorney general might step down if he is severely criticized in an independent counsel's report of a criminal investigation due in May.
On the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Pat Swindall (R-Ga.) said: "If I were the vice president, I'd certainly want to see Ed Meese resign. It's one less battle he (Bush) would have to fight."
Another committee member, Rep. Howard Coble (R-N.C.), said: "I think Ed Meese should resign, and this is awkward for me to say politically, to criticize a fellow Republican. But the perception is out there that something ain't right. . . . There just ought to be a more exacting standard applied to high-ranking officials than to John Q. Public."
In addition to the criticism from Capitol Hill, Reagan's longtime political confidant Stuart Spencer warned the President in a private meeting at the White House last Friday that Meese poses a serious political problem for Bush in November.
Reagan, in the meantime, continues to defend Meese. The President, responding to a report in the Wall Street Journal that some of Reagan's closest advisers have concluded that Meese must go, said Wednesday that he would fire him only if the attorney general "had a complete change in character."
The attorney general was unavailable for comment on the efforts by Bush and Baker advisers to get him out of office. He was in California on Wednesday to attend the funeral of the wife of former Air Force Secretary Verne Orr and was scheduled to return to Washington early today on an overnight flight.
Meese Denies Story
In comments to the Associated Press in Pasadena, however, Meese denied the Journal's story. "Today I've had a number of phone calls to me directly and to my office by a number of people mentioned in the article," Meese told reporters outside the First Methodist Church. "They all said that it's untrue; the substance of the article as it pertains to them was untrue."
He said Reagan's comments show the chief executive still supports him.
The Journal reported in Wednesday's editions that Spencer, former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and other Reagan supporters are convinced that Meese should leave because of ethical and legal problems.
Weinberger flatly denied that this was his position and said he has not discussed Meese's status with anyone.
Reagan, who has consistently defended Meese in the face of the attorney general's continuing legal and ethical problems and an investigation by an independent counsel, called the Journal's story "completely inaccurate." The President said that he knew of no efforts to oust Meese and that he would not support any secret plan to remove him.
Meese has been under intense pressure since March 29, when Deputy Atty. Gen. Arnold I. Burns and Assistant Atty. Gen. William F. Weld, head of the Justice Department's criminal division, resigned over the attorney general's persistent legal problems.
Pressure has been generated by Bush aides worried about the vice president's political future and by Baker advisers concerned about Meese's impact on the Justice Department and the Reagan presidency.
Baker himself sought his advisers' views on the Meese situation at a luncheon meeting March 31 at a townhouse used for former presidents at Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House. Attending the session were five of Baker's aides and six other advisers from outside the Administration who meet monthly with him to discuss various issues.
"Not only on that day, but on other occasions, Howard has expressed considerable unhappiness, even sadness, that he has been unable to resolve the Meese situation one way or the other," said one of four Baker advisers who spoke about the session on the condition that they not be identified. "I think he feels frustrated and powerless to really do anything."
In a telephone interview, Baker acknowledged that Meese's problems had been discussed at the meeting but said he expressed no opinion about what the attorney general should do and did not speculate on the political impact of his remaining in office.
The presidential chief of staff said he has expressed frustration about having to deal with the Meese problem "and frustration that the President has to deal with it, but I haven't expressed frustration about not getting it resolved."
Baker said he has served as "an honest broker" in passing on information about the Meese matter to the President and the attorney general himself.
"It's not my purpose to formulate a position," Baker said. "It's a highly delicate matter, and I've treated it honestly and fairly and have been determined to deal with it openly. And I believe Meese will tell you I've done that."
At Baker's March 31 meeting with his advisers, it was reported that Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, had earlier in the day stressed the seriousness of problems facing Meese and had told Baker: "That boy's got to go."
At that time, other Justice Department officials were considering resigning because of Meese's legal problems and the possibility that he might face an indictment. And Baker's advisers generally agreed that if such resignations took place, along with pressure from Republican senators, Meese might feel compelled to step aside.
"There was some discussion about whether Thurmond should go talk to the President himself," one Baker adviser said, "but I don't know whether he ever did. The obvious implication was that Meese should get out of there, but the question was how to get him out. Nobody but the President could fire him, but he wouldn't do that short of an indictment or a severely critical statement by the special prosecutor."
At one point, according to another Baker adviser, the chief of staff "made it clear he wanted to have nothing to do with this (the effort to remove Meese) personally but said he saw this whole thing as an obvious problem for the President he needed to have resolved one way or another."
"Without Baker giving his assent or dissent," the adviser said, "it was agreed within the group that some calls would be made to see what interest could be found in helping on this. Subsequently, some calls were made."
The advisers decided that they would contact, among others, Spencer and William French Smith, Reagan's first attorney general and now a Los Angeles attorney. Smith did not respond to telephone calls requesting comment.
In an interview, Spencer said he merely discussed the Meese matter with Reagan at the White House last Friday during a conversation about the "pluses and minuses" of the Bush campaign.
Spencer said he was speaking as a political analyst and mentioned Meese and the Iran-Contra affair, along with several other issues, as negatives. "I said Meese was a minus," Spencer said. "I made no editorial comment, and he made none."
Spencer, a veteran Reagan trouble-shooter, said he has no idea whether Meese will resign, but has made several phone calls and found out he's "pretty well dug in."
"I know the guy," Spencer added, "he's bull-headed."
A former White House official said he and Spencer had discussed the Meese situation and concluded that First Lady Nancy Reagan, who was a key figure in forcing the ouster of former White House Chief of Staff Donald T. Regan, was unlikely to take part in any movement to force the attorney general to resign.
Mrs. Reagan, who is fiercely protective of her husband, joined Spencer and former Deputy Chief of Staff Michael K. Deaver in persuading the President to let Regan go when they felt that he had become a political liability.
The First Lady believes that Meese "has already hurt Reagan all he can and it would serve no purpose for her to get involved," said the former official, who retains close ties to the White House. "Of course, she wouldn't be unhappy if he left."
Baker, a moderate whose appointment to replace Regan was criticized by the President's right-wing supporters, sought early on to please Meese and placate the conservative critics by bringing in a Meese lieutenant, Kenneth T. Cribb, as the White House adviser on domestic affairs.
"Baker showed a lot of deference to Meese in the beginning," said another conservative White House official who supports the attorney general. "But I guess it's a lot harder for him now with all of Meese's troubles."
The official said he saw Baker, a former Senate Republican leader from Tennessee, walking down a White House corridor the morning after independent counsel James C. McKay had informed the White House chief of staff that Meese was the subject of a criminal investigation.
"He's usually in good spirits," the official said, "but he looked worried. I said: 'How's it going, Senator?' And he said: 'We've got problems, very serious problems.' "
Under the scenario discussed at Baker's March 31 meeting with his advisers, more Justice Department officials would resign, senators would "weigh in" against Meese and Reagan confidants would talk to the President in efforts to get the attorney general out of office.
However, this strategy was thrown askew when McKay publicly ruled out indicting Meese on the evidence he had developed up to that time.
On the eve of McKay's April 1 statement, key aides to Meese were considering resigning if it turned out that the resignations of Burns and Weld were based on new information implicating Meese further. Those aides included Assistant Atty. Gen. Charles J. Cooper and Terry Eastland, the Justice Department's public affairs director.
But once McKay, at the urging of Meese attorneys Nathan Lewin and James Rocap, made public what the prosecutor had told them privately, there were no further discussions of resignations.
Although Meese has repeatedly asserted that the Justice Department is operating normally despite his problems, his legal entanglements dominate department activities. On Wednesday, for example, Joseph A. Morris, a department official, began a briefing on the Administration's stance on plastic guns by announcing to reporters that he was not resigning--much to the visible horror of a public affairs official attending the session.
Meese aides denounced the Wall Street Journal report Wednesday, calling it tissue-thin and saying that key specifics of the report did not stand up. They said they suspected that Baker aide Kenneth Duberstein was the moving force behind the report.
As for the future, some key officials are waiting for McKay's report before deciding whether to leave. The report "may just be a recitation of facts, with no judgments, a la Stein," said one official, referring to an earlier report of another investigation of Meese.
The target date for completing the report is still mid-May, but it could well slip to the end of the month, a source familiar with the work said.
Staff writers Ronald J. Ostrow, Paul Houston and Josh Getlin in Washington and Bill Boyarsky in Los Angeles contributed to this story.