GOP irked with Sununu, but Bush says he'll stay


WASHINGTON -- Even if John H. Sununu keeps his job as White House chief of staff, leading Republicans said yesterday, his power and his relationship with President Bush have been seriously weakened by his controversial travels and the resulting revolt against him by some of the most powerful Cabinet members and aides to the president.

Several influential party members said they thought that Mr. Sununu's use of a corporate jet to fly to Chicago earlier this month and an incomplete account of it by his office had "put the whole thing on a new level," as one said, and left him with an even chance to keep his position.

According to one Cabinet member, Mr. Sununu's chances of survival have been hurt because influential Cabinet figures feel that he is contemptuous of them and that his widely criticized travel arrangements are opening their own trips to criticism. Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady, Commerce Secretary Robert A. Mosbacher Sr., Transportation Secretary Samuel K. Skinner and others are said to be telling Mr. Bush that Mr. Sununu is a liability.

C. Boyden Gray, the presidential counsel, and Marlin Fitzwater, the White House spokesman, were also reported to have expressed strong criticism of the chief of staff in the last 48 hours.

A close associate of the president said he was convinced that Mr. Sununu's solicitation of a corporate jet for a trip to Chicago on June 11 and an incorrect account to Mr. Gray about who was paying for it had finally convinced Mr. Bush that the former governor should go. The associate predicted that Mr. Bush would wait a few weeks or a few months until the furor had diminished, then ease his aide out of office.

But the president gave a thumbs-up gesture and said "yes" late yesterday afternoon when reporters asked him whether Mr. Sununu would be staying on. Returning from a weekend at his retreat at Camp David, Mr. Bush, however, hurried into the White House without issuing a defense of his aide.

Known for his loyalty to staff members and his reluctance to dismiss anyone, the president is also "horrified," a friend said, that Mr. Sununu "has thrown his weight around like this." The friend said that the former New Hampshire governor would probably survive if he adopted a low profile and made no further major missteps but would surely be let go if he persisted in his controversial conduct.

"Either way," the friend said, "the days when Sununu could tell people with any credibility that he speaks for the president are gone."

Mr. Sununu issued a statement of unusual contrition Saturday, expressing his regret for mistakes he said he had made. According to a White House official, that statement came only after a staff meeting lasting from Friday evening into early Saturday that had been demanded as the price of Mr. Sununu's political survival.

It was not known whether Mr. Bush or an aide had made that demand, but another official said that "several people around here told him that he had to say he was sorry."

A Republican official who has served in the White House on more than one occasion said that Mr. Sununu's political travel was "far beyond what any other chief of staff has ever done." The official said that Mr. Sununu "is trying to be the political guru of the Republican Party or maybe the de facto party chairman, and that isn't going to work out in the long run."

The former New Hampshire governor's use of government planes for personal and political trips, then his use of a White House limousine and corporate jets, has made him a target of political jokes, a political strategist close to the White House said this weekend. Unless that could be changed quickly, the strategist said, the president would have to do something to bring the situation under control.

Another Republican campaign planner, whose office is not in Washington, asserted that the American people did not like Mr. Sununu's actions very much. But he said he saw no sign that the public was blaming the president for Mr. Sununu's behavior or any indication of popular political pressure for his dismissal.

Mr. Sununu's situation has become something much more than a Washington phenomenon in the last few days. A visitor from the capital checking into a Chicago hotel the other day was asked by the room clerk, for example, "How did you get out here? I thought Sununu had all the planes and cars in Washington tied up."

The television comedian Jay Leno said that Mr. Bush "has to go out jogging because Sununu has the car." That wisecrack found its way into the news summary the president reads early every working day.

A former member of Mr. Bush's staff described morale at the White House as "low." Because of the former governor's ways, another staff member added, "even his natural allies in the White House aren't rushing to defend him."

Mr. Sununu is a staff member, not a Cabinet secretary or an elected official. That is one reason that many people resent his behavior, however legal it may have been. It also means that the only ultimate basis for judging his effectiveness is whether he helps or hurts the president.

According to an account offered by one White House insider, Mr. Gray, Mr. Bush's counsel, who has been designated as the approving authority for Mr. Sununu's travel, discovered on Friday afternoon that the circumstances of the Chicago trip, had been incorrectly described to him.

Mr. Gray, who is close to Mr. Bush personally and very protective of the president's reputation for rectitude, reportedly exploded in fury.

A late-night meeting involving a number of aides ensued, and that was followed by the issuance of Mr. Sununu's first statement of regret.

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