WASHINGTON — President Reagan came to the defense Tuesday of Edwin Meese III, his embattled attorney general and longtime adviser, pronouncing him "of sound mind and great loyalty and capability."
"He's no embarrassment to me," the President insisted.
At a time when the President is facing some of the greatest problems of his seven years in office, Meese--on whom he has relied for two decades--is coming under increasingly critical scrutiny.
The possibility of his departure, although not considered likely by sources with long and close ties to the White House, was raised at a senior Justice Department staff meeting Tuesday as a result of inquiries by reporters.
Close Friend Uncertain
And even a close friend of the President--and a Meese acquaintance of long standing--acknowledged in a conversation Tuesday evening that he was uncertain whether the attorney general should resign.
The attorney general played a central role in the most recent White House debacle--the nomination of Douglas H. Ginsburg for the Supreme Court. Ginsburg, whose name was put forward by Meese and approved by Reagan over the objection of White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr., hastily withdrew Saturday after it was disclosed that he had smoked marijuana in the 1960s and 1970s.
On Tuesday, nationally syndicated columnist David Broder wrote that "even by the elastic standards in this Administration, the latest episode fairly shouts for Meese's resignation."
And shortly before Ginsburg's withdrawal, Meese testified before a federal grand jury investigating possible links between him and the Wedtech Corp., a Bronx-based defense contractor that is the focus of an independent counsel's investigation of alleged contract irregularities.
But a senior Justice Department official brushed off Meese's latest problem over Ginsburg as little more than a nuisance. And former White House officials said that Reagan's well-known deep loyalty to his staff and his reluctance to dismiss anyone will protect Meese, as will Meese's position as chief tender of the Administration's conservative ideological flame.
These sources said that Meese's loyalty to Ronald Reagan, dating back to his service as executive secretary and chief of staff when Reagan was governor of California, will help counter any effort to oust him--even by Nancy Reagan, who is known to protect her husband with a special ferocity when she believes he is being weakened by his aides.
"My own sense is, he should go," said one former White House senior staff member with ties to the first family. "She probably feels the same way. But I don't think the old man will bite the bullet."
Meese, who for years has smiled his way in public through a host of Administration dilemmas, said he has given no thought to resigning.
Sees No Weakening
And, speaking with reporters at a brief Justice Department ceremony with a Swiss official, Meese said Tuesday that the continuing problems posed by the court vacancy--first the defeat of nominee Robert H. Bork and then Ginsburg's departure only nine days after his choice was announced--had weakened neither him nor Reagan.
"I don't think the presidency has been weakened," he said. "No, I don't feel my role in the Administration has been diminished in any way."
But, said another former White House official: "Meese's influence may be diminished by this, if the White House staff takes advantage of the fact that he's wounded and tries to assert itself."
Over the last year, he said, Meese's influence has been strong--greater, in fact, than when James A. Baker III and then Donald T. Regan were serving as chiefs of staff. They found ways to counter Meese's ideological approach to dealing with the President. But, the former official said, his influence "will probably diminish because the people in the White House will realize how destructive it is to allow him free rein."
Reagan loyalists--while acknowledging the near-impossibility of dislodging the easygoing attorney general and expressing a lack of will to take on such a difficult task this late in the President's second term--maintain that Meese is a significant obstacle to achieving political goals that require compromise with Congress.
Meese has been tied to some of the Reagan White House's major embarrassments. In August, 1981, Meese, who was then counselor to the President, decided not to wake Reagan at his ranch northwest of Santa Barbara when U.S. Navy fighter jets shot down Libyan aircraft over the Gulf of Sidra.
Then, before the first year of the Reagan presidency was over, Meese sought to reinstitute tax-exempt status for segregated schools--a step that quickly tainted the Administration on civil rights issues.
'Ill-Served' by Staff