Politics : Baker Says Meese May Hurt Bush’s Campaign

Times Staff Writer

White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. conceded Sunday that continuance in office of Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III is probably hurting Vice President George Bush’s campaign for the White House and said he thought President Reagan shared this judgment “for the moment and to some degree.”

But even as he kept the door slightly ajar for the embattled attorney general’s possible departure, Baker emphasized that Meese “continues to have the confidence of the President.” He urged critics to withhold judgment until a final report is issued next month by James C. McKay, the independent counsel investigating charges against Meese.

In an interim report on April 1, McKay ruled out the possibility of indicting Meese “based on the evidence developed to date,” but harsh criticism is expected in his final report.


Situation ‘Difficult’

Interviewed on NBC’s “Meet the Press” shortly after he landed in Moscow to assist Reagan at the summit meeting there, Baker called Meese’s situation “difficult” and “unfortunate.” He said it “troubles the vice president,” but said he believes “the (Justice) department continues to operate.”

When asked if the furor that centers on Meese’s alleged role in helping to win federal contracts for the much-investigated Wedtech Corp. is hurting Bush’s chances of winning next November as the Republican presidential candidate, Baker replied: “I expect that it is. . . . But how much remains to be seen, and the show isn’t over yet.”

Baker continued: “Let’s wait and see what the McKay report says. Let’s give Meese his opportunity to rebut whatever allegations, if any, are made in the McKay report before we make a final judgment on its ultimate political impact.”

Responding to a question, Baker said he believes Reagan shares his view that the Meese affair is an electoral handicap for Bush “for the moment and to some degree.” But he added that the President “would urge you to wait and see how this unfolds and develops.”

May Leave Office

Meese hinted last week that he may be prepared to leave office on his own initiative after release of the McKay report.

In an interview with the staunchly conservative Washington Times, Meese predicted that McKay’s report will clear him of misconduct “if the facts are accurately portrayed.”

He added: “I will not step down under fire, and I will not step down until such time as I feel I’ve set the record straight. Remember, the people making these attacks aren’t going to stop if I left today. They would turn it around and say, ‘He left under fire, which shows he’s guilty and that’s part of the sleaze factor which the vice president inherits.’ ”

Keeping Reagan Informed

Meanwhile, Baker disclosed that he is under instructions from the President to “make sure that he is fully apprised of all the facts and circumstances that we know of, up to and including an audience with two of the Justice Department officials who resigned, and to be followed up then with a meeting with the attorney general.”

(Baker did not clarify the timing of the meetings with the former Justice officials and the attorney general, or who would participate.)

The two officials who resigned are Deputy Atty. Gen. Arnold I. Burns and Assistant Atty. Gen. William F. Weld, who quit their important posts March 29 in a joint action that associates described as an effort to distance themselves from the allegations aimed at Meese. On May 16, Terry Eastland, Meese’s chief spokesman, announced he had been fired for failure to defend his boss against “any and all criticism.”

But when Charles J. Cooper quit last week as assistant attorney general in charge of the Office of Legal Counsel to join a Washington law firm, he took pains to dissociate himself from the others, emphasizing that his departure had nothing to do with Meese’s problems.

Eastland’s successor as Justice Department spokesman, Patrick S. Korten, refused to comment Sunday either on Baker’s remarks or on the substance of a recent private meeting between Meese and Bush that both principals have refused to describe. There have been reports that the session dealt with the political fallout from Meese’s difficulties. Staff writer Ronald J. Ostrow contributed to this story.