President Reagan yesterday questioned the motives of those who sought the resignation of Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Anne M. Burford, saying those who attacked her were not concerned about the environment or possible wrongdoing, but that "this administration and its policies were their target."
In a question-and-answer session with reporters, Reagan repeated a campaign remark from 1980, saying of environmental activists: "I don't think they will be happy until the White House looks like a bird's nest."
Displaying irritation about Burford's resignation, Reagan said she was "a far bigger person than those people who have been sniping at her and who've been going public with unfounded allegations, accusations and charges."
Burford resigned Wednesday, and said later it was because she "became the issue" in the EPA controversy.
Six congressional panels and the Justice Department are looking into charges of conflict of interest, mismanagement and political manipulation of the agency's programs.
Reagan didn't identify those doing the "sniping," but said he wonders "how they manage to look at themselves in the mirror in the morning."
Without acknowledging that members of his staff had suggested that Burford be fired, Reagan said of the EPA controversy: "I sometimes suspect that the lobbyists for the environmental interests feel that they have to keep their constituents stirred up or they might not have jobs anymore."
Reagan seemed particularly irked when asked whether the "sniping" at Burford had come from inside the White House. It has been reported that senior White House aides helped orchestrate her resignation, but Reagan said, "I don't know of anything of that kind."
"There may--I know that you were all citing these unnamed White House sources that thought she would resign," he added. "And I will admit--there must be people--I still would like to find them out and identify them. There must have been people or they're probably the same people that said that about everyone else who was attacked in some way in our administration, and all of whom have been cleared completely."
Reagan then bristled at the suggestion that he agreed to Burford's departure because she had become a political embarrassment. "Well, I'm not that easily politically embarrassed," he said. "When I know and have faith in the individual, I am not going to yield to the first attack and run for cover and throw somebody off the sleigh."
Questioned about public opinion surveys showing that his administration is viewed as "being more favorable to polluters than to the public," Reagan said: "That's all they've heard, but no one has given any evidence that that is true."
During his eight years as governor, Reagan said, "California not only led every state in the union, we led the federal government in environmental protection. We were the forerunners of the whole movement."
Few who have studied the environmental movement of the 1970s would put Reagan at the forefront. But it has been pointed out that Reagan compiled a moderate record in California because he delegated the decisions to Norman (Ike) Livermore, a lumber man and Sierra Club member who shaped Reagan's policies.
Still, Reagan often had to be pushed to go along with Livermore's proposals. After he left Sacramento, Reagan became critical of the environmental "extremists" and took markedly pro-industry views in his speeches and in his 1980 presidential campaign.
His comments yesterday drew quick response from environmental activists.
Former Democratic senator Gaylord Nelson, president of the Wilderness Society, said, "I would not have used the bird's nest analogy, but the president is close to correct. Indeed, in terms of environmental policy, the White House, the EPA and the Department of Interior are beginning to look like a dodo bird's nest: out of date, out of touch and almost extinct."
Liz Raisbeck of Friends of the Earth said, "If the president can't see that EPA is in shambles, he is really out of touch with the people--or with the people's fears about pollution. We can't stand by and watch our environmental institutions destroyed without a fight."
On Burford, the president said he "never would have asked for her resignation. She was doing a job." He said the administration's record "tops what we found when we came here," and he praised Burford for operating EPA with "a reduced budget."
Discussing the executive privilege claim in which he had ordered Burford to withhold subpoenaed EPA documents from Congress, Reagan said Burford wanted to surrender all the files to a House subcommittee, "which shows, in my book, she had nothing to hide."
Questioned about Burford's purported remark that she delayed cleanup funds for a California hazardous waste dump to help defeat Gov. Edmund G. (Jerry) Brown Jr., the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate last year, Reagan said political considerations "had nothing to do with the decision that was made."
The possible political manipulation of the $1.6 billion "Superfund" that Congress established for hazardous waste dump cleanup is one aspect of the continuing congressional investigations of the EPA.
Also yesterday, Rep. James H. Scheuer (D-N.Y.) asked the administration to turn over the "issue alerts" that EPA officials sent out last year to notify the White House of impending decisions and announcements. Scheuer, whose subcommittee is looking into possible political manipulation of EPA's Superfund, said these alerts raise "troublesome questions" about "the uses to which this type of information may have been put by White House political aides."
Scheuer asked for any issue alerts sent to White House assistants Craig Fuller and Ed Rollins and former aide Lyn Nofziger.