President Carter and his top advisers spent last night in seclusion at Camp David, where they will apparently remain at least through the weekend in a series of meetings on the administration's growing problems with energy and the economy.
The reasons for Carter's abrupt decision to cancel a nationally televised speech on energy that was schedules for delivery last night remained largely a mystery at the end of a day in which some of his key aides disappeared, only to end up at the presidential retreat in Maryland last night.
But a senior Carter aide, amplifying on a written statement issued earlier by the White House, said the president planned to summon a number of persons in and out of government to Camp David to discuss energy and other domestic issues in the next several days.
"He has set no deadline for himself," the official said. "Obviously, the focus will be on domestic matters. He views this as extremely important - important enough for him to call a halt to the routine schedule of things at the White House."
It appeared likely last night that the president would cancel a trip to Louisville, Ky., schedules for tomorrow, to address the annual meeting of the National Governors' Association and, instead, would invite a number of governors to join him at Camp David.
The officials who spent last night with the president included Vice President Mondale, White House political adviser Hamilton Jordan, press secretary Jody Powell and domestic policy adviser Stuart E. Eizenstat.
Their presence, and the plans for a series of meetings probably stretching through the weekend, strongly suggest that Carter believes the combined problems of energy and the economy have brought his administration to a crisis point.
But while the president's plans for the next few days seemed clearer last night that earlier in the day, there was still considerable mystery over his decision to cancel the energy speech. The only explanation offered by the senior adviser was that it was not, as was widely speculated yesterday, because of dissatisfaction with the quality of speech drafts written for him.
"The president's decision to cancel was not a question of the details of the speech," he said. "He has felt for some time that we needed to deal with energy in a broader context. That is the reason for the cancellation of the speech."
The official declined to say what "broader context" Carter had in mind.
That was as close as anyone came yesterday to explaining the cancellation. Carter spent the day at Camp David, where, according to White House deputy press secretary Rex Granum, he did some early morning fishing.
Meanwhile, most of the president's inner circle, including Powell and Jordan, stayed away from their White House offices, but did meet at the Georgetown house of Carter pollster Patrick Caddell.
The absence of senior officials from the White House and the professed ignorance of lower-level aides only added to the mystery surrounding the speech cancellation, which was announced without explanation Wednesday.
Powell had been expected at the White House about noon yesterday, and the promise of his presence attracted a large group of reporters who hovered outside the press secretary's office. But shortly before 1 p. m., Granum emerged from his office to announce that Powell would not be in. Granum said Powell was in Washington, but he would not say where.
At that moment Powell was several miles away at the Caddell house in Georgetown, meeting with other senior aides.
In place of an explanation for the cancellation of the speech or for yesterday's disappearance of some key Carter aides, the White House issued two statements that did little to clear up the mystery. The first, issued in the morning in Powell's name, said it its entirety:
"The president has authorized me to state that, pursuant to the agreements reached at the Tokyo summit, he intends to propose at an early date a series of strong measures to restrain United States demand for imported oil."
Last week, meeting with the leaders of other industrialized democracies in Tokyo, Carter agreed to hold U.S. oil imports to 8.5 million barrels a day between now and 1985. A Whited House official said yesterday's statement was issued "to ensure that there is no misunderstanding of the president's intention," although the aide did not offer any reason - beyond the unexplained cancellation - as to why there would be any misunderstanding.
Late in the day, the White House issued the second statement, also in Powell's name.It said in its entirety:
"The president is in the process of assessing major domestic issues which he believes are important to the country and which include, but go beyond, the question of energy. He will be consulting with a number of individuals whose judgements he respects both in and outside the government."
The second statement suggested that, if and when the president decides to go through with the speech, it will deal with domestic issues beyond energy, chiefly the economy. On his way back from the Far East on Sunday, Carter, for the first time, conceded that a recession is "much more likely" for the United States because of the continued rise in world oil prices.
The president and his top aides, aware of growing domestic political turmoil because of gasoline lines, first began considering a major energy speech last week while on the Far East trip. The decision to go ahead was made Monday, the president's first day back at the White House, despite division among Carter's senior advisers.
Carter's chief political aides - Powell, Jordan and media adviser Gerald Rafshoon - favored the idea, according to officials. But those aides concerned chiefly with policy, principally domestic policy adviser Eizenstat, opposed it, the officials said.
Carter left for Camp David on Tuesday, where he worked on drafts of the speech then scheduled for 9 p. m. yesterday. But on Wednesday afternoon, Powell, speaking to reporters by telephone, announced the cancellation, which he refused to explain.
Most speculation then centered on the possibility that the president was dissatisfied with the drafts of the speech and felt that the type of speech he wished to deliver could not be prepared in time to meet Thursday night's delivery.
Middle-level White House aides, who said they had been told nothing about the reasons for the cancellation, centered their speculation on this. But these aides were baffled, and some clearly angered, by the failure of a senior White House officials to provide an explanation.
"It certainly is an interesting way to run the government," one officials said.