WASHINGTON -- The White House yesterday abruptly reinstated five of the seven travel aides who were dismissed last week for incompetence, and blamed President Clinton's chief of staff, Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty III, for the handling of the travel office affair.
Mr. Clinton and Vice President Al Gore said they had nothing to do with the messy dismissals, rehirings and enlistment of the FBI to buttress the White House's case, and they referred all questions to Mr. McLarty.
"Mack is claiming responsibility," said George Stephanopoulos, the White House spokesman.
Concerned that it would look bad to leave Mr. McLarty taking all the blame, Mr. Clinton later said, "Ultimately, anything that happens in the White House is the responsibility of the president."
But it was the second time in recent weeks that the White House staff under Mr. McLarty has come under criticism from Mr. Clinton. Three weeks ago, he complained that the staff was "out of focus" and needed to be reorganized.
Still, Mr. Stephanopoulos said yesterday that there was no thought of dismissing Mr. McLarty, a boyhood friend of the president. To the contrary, he said Mr. McLarty and budget director Leon E. Panetta were in charge of an internal review of the affair.
The FBI and the Justice Department also announced reviews, as the Senate Minority Leader, Bob Dole of Kansas, declared that the affair "takes you back to Watergate, and as a Republican, I can tell you of the repercussions of that."
Meanwhile, Justice Department spokesman Carl Stern said yesterday that Attorney General Janet Reno, who was bypassed by the White House when it contacted the FBI about the travel office, called the White House counsel, Bernard Nussbaum, on Friday to "remind Bernie that there are ways these things should be handled."
Yesterday's maneuvering by the White House marked the latest twist in a madcap week of shifting positions and contradictory statements about the affair. The events have turned into a major embarrassment for Mr. Clinton, who has clearly decided to put a political distance between himself and the uproar around him.
"I had nothing to do with any decision, except to save the taxpayers and the press money," Mr. Clinton told reporters yesterday when asked about the White House's efforts to enlist the FBI to bolster its suggestion of possible criminal wrongdoing by the travel office staff.
"That's all I know. We saved 25 percent on the first plane ride and saved the taxpayers a bunch of money. Any other questions, I obviously refer you to Mr. McLarty."
The travel office arranges transportation for the news media traveling with the president, but the news media pay for most of that.
After having announced the dismissal of the entire seven-person travel department last Wednesday for "gross mismanagement," Mr. Stephanopoulos said that five department employees who did not have any responsibility for writing checks were being put on indefinite administrative leave.
They will not be able to return to their jobs at this time, he said, but will continue to draw their salaries.
Mr. Stephanopoulos also engaged in a bit of revisionism, asserting that the staff members being rehired had never actually been dismissed, only put on administrative leave to begin with.
Last week, White House press secretary Dee Dee Myers said the travel department had been "dismissed" for gross mismanagement and possible criminal behavior and had been told to leave immediately with two weeks' severance pay.