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President and Wright Clash on Nicaragua : Speaker's Meetings With Ortega, Obando Draw Reagan's Ire

November 17, 1987|SARA FRITZ | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — President Reagan on Monday personally admonished House Speaker Jim Wright (D-Tex.) for talking with Nicaraguan leaders, but Wright left the meeting unapologetic for the unorthodox role that he is playing in the Central America peace negotiations.

"I don't have to get permission, and I think it would be demeaning in a sense to have to get permission," Wright declared, referring to the Administration's contention that he should not contact Central American leaders without first clearing it with the State Department.

The stand-off between Reagan and Wright is certain to complicate the task of State Department officials assigned to carry out U.S. policy in Central America. Wright's continued participation also will serve to bring additional pressure on the Adminstration to talk with the Sandinista government in a bilateral setting.

A 'Stern Session'

Described as a "stern session" by White House participants, the one-hour, face-to-face meeting between Wright and Reagan also was attended by a number of other top Administration officials, including Vice President George Bush, Secretary of State George P. Shultz, White House Chief of Staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and National Security Adviser Frank C. Carlucci.

White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater said that the President told Wright he disapproves of the meetings between the Speaker and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega late last week at a time when Administration officials are refusing to talk to Ortega.

Fitzwater said that Reagan, who has long supported the Contras' effort to overthrow the Sandinistas, told the Speaker that by injecting himself into the middle of the Nicaraguan peace talks, he is "getting involved in what should be essentially a matter between the Sandinista government and the Nicaraguan Resistance."

Should Have Been Notified

Shultz has said that Wright should have notified the State Department before his meetings last Thursday and Friday with Ortega and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who is expected to serve as mediator between the Sandinistas and the Contras.

Asked whether the President slapped his wrist, Wright replied: "I regard the relationship between the executive and the legislative branch as a co-equal relationship. One does not extend one's wrist for slapping."

Wright said that he still intends to continue meeting with Central American leaders and will make a trip to Costa Rica on Dec. 1. He added that when Administration officials were told of his plans to visit the region, they did not object.

The Speaker leveled some criticism of his own at the Administration and argued that Central American leaders such as Ortega come to him because they do not feel comfortable going to State Department officials.

"There is an impression--and perhaps it is an unfair impression--that the Administration treats them as inferiors," he said. "I don't treat them as inferiors. . . . Perhaps if they had an open-door policy toward people in Central America, they would go see them instead of coming to see me."

Wright asserted that there are factions within the Administration who want to settle for nothing less than a military victory over the Sandinistas.

Some Reject Settlement

"It's an open secret that there are people in the Administration who don't want a settlement," he said.

He likewise dismissed the Administration's contention that his meetings with Ortega give legitimacy to the Communist government.

"Who am I to confer legitimacy?" he asked.

In fact, Wright was far less conciliatory toward the Administration after his meeting with Reagan than he had been last Friday after being criticized by Republicans in Congress. He indicated that his temper was raised by an article in the Washington Post last Sunday quoting an unnamed Administration official who severely criticized him.

The Speaker said he assumed that the unnamed official was Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams. He said he told Shultz, Abrams' boss, during their White House meeting: "If any member of my staff leaked a pejorative description of him (Shultz), I'd have his head."

Wright said that Abrams had completely misportrayed his meeting Friday with Ortega and Obando at the Vatican Embassy in Washington.

During the meeting, he said, he emphasized to Ortega that if Obando serves as mediator--as expected--the Nicaraguan church leader must be "more than a glorified messenger, must be able to decide where the talks will be held and must be able to hire whomever he wants as staff."

Wright, who twice rejected Ortega's request that he serve as mediator in the Nicaraguan peace talks, said that Shultz probably would prefer for the Speaker to have no contact with Central American leaders. But he emphasized that he was not trying to usurp the role of the State Department.

"I'm not trying to be secretary of state," he added. "I've got a job."

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