President Carter was briefed on the investigation of budget director Bert Lance's personal finances yesterday by Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, but the President and his top aides maintained their silence about the probe.
White House press secretary Jody Powell said top administration officials intend to remain silent about the subject until the investigation is concluded.
"It is our belief that the only appropriate course of action is for us to withhold any comment, public or private, that in any way could be construed as attempting to influence the outcome of the investigation," he said.
Describing this as a "difficult position" to be in, Powell added, "I could see no comment we could make . . . that could not be constructed as having some impact, or potential impact, on the conduct or outcome of the inquiry."
The investigation, centering on two large, personal loans Lance received before he began government service, is being conducted by the comptroller of the currency, who is in the Treasury Department. Carter's meeting with Blumenthal yesterday was at least the second time he has been briefed on the investigation by the Treasury secretary.
Powell said that the President has not discussed the investigation with Lance for more than a month, although he meets Office of Management and Budget with the director regularly. The investigation, Powell said, has not altered Carter's relationship with his longtime friend or affected Lance's functions in the administration.
In another development, Vice President Mondale denied a published report that he had predicted Lance will soon resign.
"That is absolutely false," Mondale said in a statement. "I have never said anything like that. I hope he stays on."
In Atlanta, Carter's longtime friend and adviser. Charles Kirbo, said he saw no reason why Lance should resign simply because "the press chops him up."
"I haven't seen anything or heard anything that the fellow has done wrong," Kirbo said.
Meanwhile, Powell was questioned about a column by William Safire in The New York Times that suggested Lance had used Carter to help him to dealing with the Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. of New York in 1975.
In 1975, Lance obtained a $2.7 million loan from the bank that enabled him to gain control of the National Bank of Georgia. He later paid off the loan and settled other personal financial obligations with a $3.4 million loan from the First National Bank of Chicago.
The comptroller of the currency is investigating the details and circumstances of those loans to determine if Lance was guilty of a conflict of interest or misused his position as head of the Georgia bank in obtaining them.
Questioned about Safire's column, Powell said that in June, 1975, shortly after Lance had received the original loan. Lance arranged a meeting for Carter with officials of Manufacturers Hanover Trust. But Powell ridiculed Safire's suggestion that Lance did this to shore up his own standing with the bank's loan officers.
Powell said Carter was in New York at the time for an economics seminar and wanted to meet leaders of the New York business community to tell them he was running for President. But given Carter's lack of national standing, his seeming hopeless dream to be President, he and his aides feared they might not even get appointments with the New York big-wigs, and turned to Lance for help, Powell said.
"The idea that someone of his [Carter's] standing could have exerted any influence is one of the more ludicrous assertions I've run across," Powell said.
James Hambleton, a vice president of Manufacturers Hanover, said Carter's meeting at the bank "was purely a social visit."
He said the meeting should be viewed "in the context of who Jimmy Carter was at the time - hardly anybody knew him at that time."