In Venice, Reagan And Staff Leave Reporters Confused

Posted: June 12, 1987

VENICE, Italy — From start to finish, President Reagan's trip to the Venice economic summit has been marred by confusion as he and his senior aides have struggled to make their reports jibe in discussing what was going on behind closed doors.

There have been gaffes by Reagan, misstatements by his chief of staff and national security adviser, questionable interpretations by his secretary of state and a series of contradictory statements from other presidential spokesmen.

By the time they left Venice early this morning, Reagan and his White House team had created a credibility problem with both the regular White House press corps and the thousands of foreign journalists attending the summit.

It started June 3, when National Security Adviser Frank Carlucci told reporters aboard Air Force One that there would be an explicit statement of support at the summit for the U.S.-Soviet talks to eliminate medium-range missiles in Europe. There wasn't. Secretary of State George P. Shultz later explained that a NATO meeting yesterday and today in Iceland was the forum for such a statement, not Venice.

It ended yesterday during Reagan's news conference, when he temporarily

sent financial markets into chaos and his aides into a panic by saying that ''there could still be some lowering of the value" of the U.S. dollar.

That statement came just a day after the summit nations announced that they did not want any more substantial changes in the value of the dollar, which had stabilized during the past month, to the great relief of U.S. officials.

White House officials, normally nervous about commenting on the dollar, immediately issued a clarification, saying, "The President wants stability in the dollar, but he also recognizes the fact that market forces may cause occasional fluctuations." That statement apparently reassured nervous traders, and the dollar bounced back after an initial drop.

The most frequent misstatments on the summit trip were made by Reagan's chief of staff, Howard H. Baker Jr., who was making his first overseas trip in his new capacity.

Baker, who is accustomed to speaking freely to reporters as a result of his years as Senate Republican leader, quickly discovered that his words were followed much more closely when he was speaking for the President.

He seemed to contradict bedrock U.S. policy against giving the Soviets a foothold in the Middle East when he said, "I think there's more good . . . than bad" in the Soviets' willingness to protect Kuwaiti tankers in the Persian Gulf.

Baker's statement prompted Carlucci to restate the administration's strong opposition to an increased Soviet presence in the gulf, and Baker said in an interview that he did not recall using those words.

Yesterday, Reagan took a middle course by defending the Soviets' right to have forces in the gulf, but stopping short of welcoming them.

Baker also clashed with Carlucci when he said he accepted the word of the Chinese that they had not supplied Silkworm missiles to Iran. A few days earlier, Carlucci had said he did not believe the Chinese and knew that they had supplied the missiles. White House officials later told reporters privately that Baker had made a mistake.

Shultz's credibility was called into question Monday, when he said that all of the allies supported a U.S. proposal to impose a mandatory arms embargo against Iraq and Iran unless they halted their war.

But officials from several of the delegations, particularly the Italians, insisted that there was not a unanimous consensus for an embargo and that, as a result, a final statement on the issue made no specific reference to one.

The White House also contradicted itself about the legal status of a Lebanese suspect in the hijacking of a TWA jet to Beirut in June 1985. Presidential spokesman Marlin Fitzwater had told reporters that West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl had rejected Reagan's personal request to extradite the

suspect, Mohammed Ali Hamadei, to the United States to face murder charges.

But West German officials, angry about the premature disclosure, denied that a formal decision had been made, and Reagan was forced to contradict his own press secretary in public yesterday in the name of diplomacy.

Several White House officials confided privately that the root cause of the string of gaffes was a decision to put senior administration officials on television news constantly in order to promote their message.

But the message got garbled. Most of the miscues occurred in the dozens of televised interviews, transcripts of which were circulated to print reporters.

"Maybe," lamented one press officer who asked not to be identified, "we should go back to those private briefings with unnamed administration officials."

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