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Sununu apology cited by Bush, who backs aide


WASHINGTON -- President Bush said yesterday that John H. Sununu has apologized to him personally for tarnishing the reputation for high ethical standards the president had sought for his administration, and Mr. Bush says the matter should be "laid to rest."

Mr. Bush did not excuse or defend the White House chief of staff's controversial travel practices as he has in the past, but he insisted he retains full confidence in Mr. Sununu's advice and counsel.

"He's told me right from the heart that he regretted very much any controversy and anything that this may have done to diminish the ethical standards of this presidency," Mr. Bush said at a news conference outside his vacation home in Kennebunkport, Maine.

"He went to the staff . . . with essentially the same message. He said it publicly."

In response to Mr. Sununu's apology, the president said, "I told him, look, I understand this. . . . And very candidly, no laws having been violated, I think we ought to move onto something more important."

Mr. Bush acknowledged that his top aide's use of military jets and cars for personal business and his solicitation of corporate aircraft for political trips raised questions about the administration's commitment to the high ethical standards Mr. Bush set at the start of his term.

"That's why I think he came in and we had a good heart-to-heart talk, more than one, about it," the president said, as Mr. Sununu looked on from the sidelines.

Since the Sununu controversy broke open two months ago, the president has offered partial defenses along with rebukes as he imposed tighter and tighter restrictions on his chief of staff's travel privileges.

Meanwhile, White House insiders began calculating the odds on when the president's patience would finally run out.

By last Friday, Mr. Sununu's job was estimated by one senior administration official to be "hanging by a thread."

The president's comments yesterday were seen by critics of Mr. Sununu as the least that could be expected if he is going to be allowed to stay.

In a wide-ranging news conference yesterday that was highlighted by Mr. Bush's choice of U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Clarence Thomas for the U.S. Supreme Court, the president also dealt gingerly with another top official, Housing Secretary Jack F. Kemp.

Mr. Bush said it "may be true" that his administration has not been as forceful as Mr. Kemp has been in promoting housing programs, which the New York Times reported yesterday is seen by the housing secretary as a major obstacle in getting his job done. "He's a real zealot out there, and he's got all the time in the world to do it."

But, Mr. Bush added, "I don't think he feels more strongly in his heart about it" than Mr. Bush does.

He called Mr. Kemp "a salesman" who deserves credit for trying to promote his department's mission.

According to the Times account, Mr. Kemp is frustrated because the White House won't move faster on anti-poverty programs.

Mr. Bush also offered tentative support for the crime bill pending in the Senate despite its requirement for a five-day waiting period on the purchase of handguns, a procedure his administration has opposed.

"There were some very good things in the Senate bill," the president said, noting that the measure also includes provisions he prefers that would expand the federal death penalty and impose sharp new limits on the ability of state prisoners to challenge their convictions by seeking new trials at the federal level.

While he said he would not commit himself until he saw the final measure, Mr. Bush said, "We'll take some things that I like, and maybe some things that I don't like, because it is important to get on with the crime bill."

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