A Tree Dies, the Fur Flies

The combative denizens of Washington's exclusive Cleveland Park neighborhood are once again embroiled in an ugly controversy.

This time, Fannie Mae COO Daniel Mudd and wife Maura are trading insults with their neighbors -- former Colorado senator Tim Wirth, head of Ted Turner's United Nations Foundation, and his environmentalist wife Wren -- over the removal yesterday of a very old, 80-foot-tall chestnut oak on land once owned by President Grover Cleveland on Newark Street NW.

"I really feel heartsick. I have a pit in my stomach when I realize that they can take down this tree without any thought of history," said Maura Mudd, who for the past year has been trying to persuade the Wirths and the Mudds' next-door neighbor, retired World Bank economist Ann Hamilton, to save the structurally weakened tree. "I think the Wirths have been duplicitous about their real intentions. I think they set out to build a house on the lot and then tried to prove that the tree was unsafe."

The tree was marred by a huge and growing gash in the trunk and major branches, suffered from rot and fungus, and was held together by aging cables -- a metaphor, perhaps, for the personal relationships involved. Hamilton, the Wirths and the Mudds hired half a dozen arborists to examine the old oak, and a few said it was hazardous and should come down. "We're seeing some very irrational behavior," Wren Wirth told us. "I have been living here since 1975, and to have somebody [Maura Mudd] who has just moved here a few years ago running around the neighborhood and screaming accusations is quite astonishing and not a little disconcerting."

The tree -- which the Mudds say could have been 400 years old, while Wirth says it's closer to 300 -- was on the border of the Wirths' and Hamilton's lots, which were acquired in a series of purchases since June of 2000. The Wirths, who currently live around the corner on 35th Street NW, had planned to build a new house near the tree and even commissioned a "tree-friendly" design. But after deciding that the tree was unsafe, they reconsidered. "I don't know if we're going to build a house now," Wirth said. "The tree was the reason we bought the lot. Like everyone else in the neighborhood, I loved the tree. . . . This is our tragedy."

Mudd said she was notified on Monday by Hamilton and Wirth that the tree was coming down. "I feel duped," she told us.

Oh, Suzanne!

* A few hours after hosting a chichi lunch at Cafe Milano Wednesday for Ecuadorean Trade Minister Ivonne A-Baki, the ever-colorful Suzanne Kent Cooke was arrested on a D.C. bench warrant -- for allegedly operating a vehicle without a permit -- and hauled off to jail.

The 46-year-old Cooke, who back in January 2000 spent 10 days behind bars for a similar infraction, told us yesterday that she was taken into custody at her house around 6 p.m. Wednesday. "It was all very dignified," she said.

After spending the night in lockup, she appeared yesterday afternoon before Superior Court Judge Richard Ringell, who released her on her own recognizance and scheduled a status hearing for Feb. 20, reports The Post's Robin Groom.

A friend of Cooke's blamed the situation on a bureaucratic snafu, but Peter Lavallee, a spokesman for the D.C. Corporation Counsel, told Groom that the arrest dates back to a Dec. 14 incident in which a police officer spotted a woman later identified as Cooke sitting in a car with expired tags. When asked to produce her operator's permit, she said she wanted to find a friend at a nearby dry cleaners. The officer agreed, and she left. The officer waited but she did not return, Lavallee said.

Yesterday Cooke was dismissive of the situation as she prepared to get her hair done for last night's Organization of American States Dinner. "Forget about Suzanne Cooke, and go look for bin Laden," she advised law enforcement authorities.

THIS JUST IN...

* Administration officials insisted yesterday that they're not worried about Fortune magazine's scandalous scoop about William H. Donaldson, President Bush's choice to chair the Securities and Exchange Commission. Fortune reported that in the 1980s, the married Donaldson had an affair with the wife of then-Rep. Bruce Morrison (D-Conn.). Jane Morrison, who worked at the Yale School of Management when Donaldson was dean, gave birth to a love child by Donaldson. Donaldson's first wife died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1994, and he and Morrison wed the following year. Messy as this revelation sounds, administration types said the White House knew all about it. They predict that it won't interfere with Donaldson's nomination, scheduled to be considered by the Senate Banking Committee on Wednesday, and that he'll get the chance to repair the SEC's scandal-battered image.