WASHINGTON -- President Bush is letting chief of staff John H. Sununu keep his chauffeur-driven White House car but is taking away his license to use it at will for personal trips out of town.
Amid the latest flap over Sununu's travel at taxpayer expense, Bush said yesterday he was troubled by Sununu's "appearance of impropriety" in using his government car to go to New York for a stamp auction last week.
But Bush defended his senior aide's actions as justified by the demands of the job. He said Sununu, a former governor of New Hampshire, used the four-hour drive to conduct official business, such as revising a presidential speech and "making plenty of phone calls" about negotiations with Congress over transportation legislation.
Bush said he had discussed the matter with Sununu, who was a frequent flier aboard military aircraft for personal and political travel until a controversy last month prompted Bush to restrict his use of government flights.
"I recognize, and I think the governor does, there's an appearance problem," Bush told reporters as he prepared to meet with House Republican leaders in the Cabinet Room at the White House.
"But when you look at the facts surrounding this particular trip, this beating that he's taking is unwarranted, in my view," he said.
While Bush denied a report that he was angry with Sununu, White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said Bush expects that such a long-distance auto trip "is a one-time thing, or at least a very rare occurrence."
Bush himself said the trip doesn't set a precedent, and "it doesn't say anybody that has access to a car can go any place anyone wants at any time. The governor would be the first to say that."
House Republican leader Robert H. Michel of Illinois said after the meeting with Bush, "You won't find me kicking the chief of staff around, because the good he's done for the administration far outweighs any negatives."
Rep. Guy Vander Jagt, R-Mich., asked, "How do you expect him to travel, on a Greyhound bus?"
Sununu's travel embarrassments pose a dilemma for Bush by pitting his personal loyalty to a top adviser against his repeated pledges to fight even the appearance of wrongdoing in his administration.
"When you have an appearance problem," Bush said, "I think all of us would agree you want to try to avoid it as much as possible, and I think all of us have.
"But you shouldn't be judged by appearance; you ought to be judged by the facts. And there is plenty of reason why this was done, and it doesn't set a precedent."
But the Washington Post reported yesterday that Bush was "upset, angry and perplexed" by the latest Sununu controversy and had consulted with an unidentified senior political adviser about how to handle the situation.