President Reagan refused yesterday to discuss the possibility of presidential pardons for those facing indictment in the Iran-contra affair, but aides and friends flatly discounted rumors that such a step might be imminent.
Asked about the prospect of pardons during a photo session in the Rose Garden, Reagan said, "That's a question no one can answer."
To reporters who replied that surely he could answer it, Reagan insisted, "No, I can't."
The president was in the Rose Garden for the annual presentation of the White House Thanksgiving turkey. "I'll pardon him," Reagan said when asked about the turkey's fate.
Reagan made plain yesterday that he did not think much of the congressional report that accused him of "failing to take care that the law reigned supreme."
"Maybe they labored and brought forth a mouse," Reagan said.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, meanwhile, rejected the idea of Thanksgiving pardons for former National Security Council aide Oliver L. North, former national security adviser John M. Poin- dexter and, possibly, former national security adviser Robert C. McFarlane as "a media phenomenon."
The New York Times committed the notion to print yesterday morning in a report saying that "there is a hot, widely discussed, wholly unconfirmed rumor that President Reagan will issue the pardons on Thursday, citing the Thanksgiving Day holiday as a time for forgiveness and healing."
"We don't discuss pardons, period," Fitzwater said. He said any comment "just lends credence to idle speculation and ill-founded rumors."
The only unknown seems to be what Reagan might do next year, once the November elections are over and he is preparing to leave office.
Friends of the president
say he has kept his own counsel about this, neither bringing up the subject of pardons nor being asked about it.
"This is a subject I have not and will not discuss at this time," Reagan said at a Cabinet Room meeting with business leaders following
his Rose Garden appearance.
Asked when he would talk about it, he said, "Sometime in the future."
For the moment, Reagan is said to be mindful of how harmful pardons could be to the domestic and foreign policy goals he still wishes to attain.
Reagan will leave the capital this morning for his ranch in California, spend the holiday there and return on Sunday. "I don't expect any significant news on this trip, and I would send out skeleton crews to cover it," Fitzwater said.
Independent counsel Lawrence E. Walsh is still busy conducting his criminal investigation of the Iran-contra affair, and indictments are not expected until January at the earliest.
Attorney General Edwin Meese III appeared before Walsh's Iran-contra grand jury yesterday for the fourth time this month. It was not known whether he would have to return again.
Meese, who has said he was appearing as a witness, not a target, was sharply criticized in the final report of the congressional Iran-contra committees last week, especially because of what the committees described as a slipshod fact-finding inquiry that Meese conducted at the White House Nov. 21-25 while North and others destroyed crucial documents.
Reagan has been quoted as having opposed pardons when the question came up last December, on the grounds that it would signify that he believed crimes had been committed.
Even if indictments are forthcoming, sources point out, it is far from clear that Walsh will be able to steer them past the stiff pretrial skirmishing that lies ahead.Staff writer David Hoffman contributed to this report.