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STANDOFF WITH CHINA: U.S. AIRCRAFT HELD

White House Seeks to Project an Air of Normalcy

April 05, 2001|EDWIN CHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — When President Bush flew here from Camp David several hours ahead of schedule Sunday, after an abbreviated night's sleep, aides cited "bad weather" as the reason for his early return. The president helicoptered back to beat a storm that might have forced him to take a motorcade.

From the first news that a U.S. spy plane had made an emergency landing Sunday in China, the White House sought to convey the picture of a leader going about business as usual. Bush and his advisors agreed that he should strike a low-key tone.

"Obviously, we view this as an accident that we clearly don't want to become an incident," said a senior White House advisor who asked to remain anonymous because of the delicate diplomatic situation. "We were providing the Chinese the appropriate space to do what's right."

Even as the showdown dragged on, Bush clung to that posture Wednesday, plowing through a series of meetings and tasks that included not only briefings on the damaged Navy EP-3 reconnaissance plane but an array of domestic and international matters that had nothing to do with the 24 U.S. crew members being held on Hainan island in southern China.

"This is a very sensitive time in our conversations with the Chinese," said Ari Fleischer, the White House press secretary. "There are times in international relations where the less said is the most productive."

A third top aide said there is no crisis atmosphere in the West Wing but acknowledged that the ambience may be "a little more sober."

"I don't think there's any feeling that we've made any misstep," the aide added.

That relative nonchalance notwithstanding, Bush is "staying in very close touch with the situation," Fleischer said Wednesday. "He has been on the phone with [National Security Advisor] Condoleezza Rice throughout the morning and into the afternoon."

After receiving his daily, early-morning intelligence briefing from Rice, the president made two "introductory" telephone calls, to Presidents Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Zine el Abidine ben Ali of Tunisia.

"They discussed the [Mideast] situation and agreed on the need to find ways to restore calm and stability in the region," Fleischer said.

Bush and Saleh also agreed on the need to cooperate in an ongoing investigation into the Oct. 12 terrorist attack on the U.S. Navy destroyer Cole in the Yemeni port of Aden, which killed 17 Americans and two suicide bombers.

On Wednesday afternoon, Bush met with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld in what Fleischer called the Pentagon chief's "routine weekly visit" with the president.

Shortly after that, Agriculture Secretary Ann M. Veneman dropped by to update Bush on the outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease among livestock in Europe.

In addition, the president "paid close attention" to actions by the House and Senate on portions of his domestic agenda, including moves to abolish the estate tax by the former and a vote on the budget resolution by the latter.

Bush's sole public appearance Wednesday was a photo op with children on the White House's South Lawn. Today, he is scheduled to address the convention of the American Society of Newspaper Editors and a meeting of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, both here.

Aides said the dispute with China has not affected the president's schedule. He plans to attend a baseball game in Milwaukee on Friday night. Then he will spend the latter part of next week on the road to promote his domestic agenda and spend Easter weekend at his ranch near Crawford, Texas.

"The president, in the course of a normally very busy day, is pursuing the diplomatic channels," Fleischer said. "He's also attending to the other important business of the government. He will continue to do so. . . . He hopes that this accident will not turn into an international incident."

*

Times staff writer Ronald Brownstein contributed to this report.

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