WASHINGTON — President Reagan struck back Wednesday at critics who say an influence-peddling investigation centering on Atty. Gen. Edwin Meese III underscores lax ethical standards in the White House, saying his Administration has been "smeared nationwide" by unfounded charges and "guilt by accusation."
The President, speaking at his first news conference in four months, said he has "every confidence" in the integrity of Meese, the subject of at least three separate independent counsel investigations in the last seven years.
"There is a kind of lynch mob atmosphere," Reagan said, in which accusations against government officials are widely reported but are without substantiation.
Meese, the nation's ranking law enforcement officer, has been investigated for his financial dealings and for his role in the award of a Pentagon contract to scandal-ridden Wedtech Corp., a small Bronx defense firm. However, his involvement in a controversial Iraqi pipeline project has led to the most serious probe of the attorney general thus far.
In other press conference highlights, Reagan:
--Maintained that rioting by Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip over the last two months was instigated by "outsiders," whom he refused to name. "We have had in1953066337people suspected of being terrorists, outsiders, coming in, not only with weapons, but stirring up and encouraging in those areas."
--Insisted that the austere fiscal 1989 defense budget that he submitted to Congress earlier this month does not pose a threat to the national security.
--Offered the opinion that South Africa's policy of racial apartheid "is a tribal policy more than it is a racial policy."
In defending the ethical conduct of officials of his Administration, Reagan said: "No attention is paid to the fact of how many of them, when it actually came to trial, are found to be totally innocent."
He cited the cases of former Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan and former NASA Administrator James M. Beggs, both of whom were acquitted of criminal charges.
Reagan made no mention of his former close aides Michael K. Deaver and Lynn Nofziger, who were more recently convicted on criminal charges.
When asked whether Democratic charges of corruption could be used successfully against Republican candidates in this year's elections, the President said: "I don't know whether they're going to be used effectively or not. I know they're going to be used."
When asked about Vice President George Bush's role in the Administration's secret arms sales to Iran in 1985 and 1986, Reagan insisted that Bush had expressed reservations about the plan.
"Yes, there were reservations, but I'm not going to go into them, just as he wouldn't go into the private discussions that we may have had," Reagan said.
Issue Dogging Bush
Bush has said that he expressed unspecified "reservations" about the deals, but other officials, including Secretary of State George P. Shultz, have said that the vice president argued in favor of the arms sales. The issue has dogged Bush in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.
In blaming outside agitators for recent Palestinian rioting, Reagan spoke just before Shultz left for Jerusalem at the start of a new U.S. effort to revive the moribund Middle East peace process.
Reagan said Shultz's efforts have "my full support. . . . It's time for all parties (in the Middle East) to rid themselves of old ideas and stances that cannot work and to begin a serious process of negotiation and reconciliation." Any peace effort, he said, "must meet Israel's security needs and satisfy the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people."
When pressed about the defense budget, Reagan insisted that he remained committed to building the Navy up to 600 ships despite the charge by James H. Webb Jr., who angrily announced his resignation as Navy secretary Monday and alleged that the Administration had abandoned that goal in the interest of cutting the budget.
And, asked whether his Administration should have assigned Marine Lt. Col. William R. Higgins to Lebanon, where he was taken hostage earlier this month, Reagan said American military office1920147490536870913vacancy at that spot."
Charges Against Panamanian
The President rejected reports that State Department officials have explored the option of dropping drug charges against Panamanian leader Manuel A. Noriega if the military strongman would step down from his post. "I'm not going to make any comment of that ki1852058663advances or suggestion of that kind to the government of Panama."
Reagan refused to explain directly why his recent budget proposes cuts in programs for the nation's homeless population, but he said that many cuts in social programs reflected increased management efficiencies rather than reduced government aid for the poor. "It means that were able to provide that with less administrative overhead," he said.