White House chief of staff Donald T. Regan denied yesterday that he had forced national security affairs adviser Robert C. McFarlane to resign, as administration officials sought to limit the political damage caused by stories about Regan-McFarlane conflicts.
"As far as I know and as far as I'm concerned, there was no conflict between Bud [McFarlane] and me which should have led to his leaving," Regan said in a White House interview.
White House spokesman Larry Speakes blamed the news media for the conflict, which senior officials have been discussing for months.
Lecturing reporters at the morning White House briefing, Speakes said:
"This whole thing is totally overblown, and you are doing a disservice to your profession, you're doing a disservice to the administration because you are incorrectly reporting the facts. I'm in here . . . virtually 24 hours a day, and I've observed it. I have had stronger clashes with Bud than Regan has, and I don't think Bud is leaving because of his clashes with me."
Later, Speakes told reporters in New York, where the president was speaking at a National Review anniversary dinner, that "Regan's been blamed for every departure in the White House except the dog, Lucky," which President Reagan took last week to his California ranch.
Two months ago, Regan was the prime mover in forcing Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret M. Heckler out of the Cabinet. She reluctantly accepted being nominated to become ambassador to Ireland. And the president and Speakes blamed the media for well-publicized reports of conflict leading to the decision.
Senior officials said yesterday that Regan has been damaged politically by reports that his involvement in foreign policy issues had contributed to McFarlane's decision to leave. One official said Regan had been "hurt" with First Lady Nancy Reagan, who has openly expressed her respect for McFarlane. They said, however, that the president had discounted the media reports.
McFarlane told the president last week in Santa Barbara, Calif., that he wanted to leave at the end of the year, saying that he would like to spend more time with his family. Reagan announced the decision in the White House Wednesday, when he appointed McFarlane's deputy, John M. Poindexter, to succeed him.
At the time, the president said reporters were "misinformed" in blaming Regan for McFarlane's departure. McFarlane, appearing grim and emotional, said the reports were "nonsense."
Senior officials said that Speakes and Regan had recommended that McFarlane's resignation be announced earlier but that the president did not want to make any statement until he decided on a replacement.
One official said "pressure groups" would have developed for prospective candidates if McFarlane's resignation had been announced before the president had chosen a replacement.
Some sources said administration moderates were particularly concerned that conservatives would urge Reagan to appoint former U.N. ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, considered for the job before McFarlane was chosen two years ago.
Officials said McFarlane strongly lobbied for Poindexter on grounds that he had demonstrated his mettle in crises and could provide continuity. Similar arguments were made on behalf of McFarlane, then the No. 2 person on the National Security Council staff, when he replaced William P. Clark in the top job in October 1983.
Regan yesterday repeated the president's promise of a day earlier that Poindexter would have independent access to Reagan.
"I expect to have the same relationships with John Poindexter as I did with Bud McFarlane -- that he runs the NSC and has access to the president but keeps me informed of what's going on," Regan said.