Attorney General Edwin Meese III has told friends he intends to ride out the storm created by the latest disclosures about his role in an Iraqi pipeline project, despite a growing perception in Republican circles that he has become a severe political liability.
Sources close to President Reagan said that the president continues to have confidence in Meese and would not ask for his resignation. These sources said that Reagan, if asked about Meese at the news conference he has scheduled for Wednesday night, is expected to say that he will make no comment while the attorney general remains under investigation by independent counsel James C. McKay.
White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater, who in the past has expressed Reagan's confidence in Meese, declined comment last night after controversial documents about the pipeline project were released by Meese's attorney.
Meese has responded to the disclosures as an unwarranted political attack on his character and has turned aside questions of his resignation. He is known to have said to a friend, "If false allegations and political attacks can drive people from office, then no honest public official is safe."
Meese and his spokesman Terry Eastland were in San Diego yesterday, where the attorney general was attending a conference of U.S. attorneys. "Mr. Meese's intention is to continue serving in office," Eastland said when asked if Meese would step aside until the investigation is completed.
Republicans who question Meese's judgment have made no attempt to persuade Reagan to remove him. They are aware of the president's well-known reluctance to back away from any member of his administration who is under attack and realize that Reagan's long association with Meese, which goes back to the early days of his California governorship in 1967, makes such a move even less likely.
"Meese is the last of the old Californians to remain in the administration," said a White House official. "The president doesn't want to let him go."
"No one's trying to push Meese out, not because they wouldn't like to but because they know the president wouldn't stand for it," said another administration official who believes that the attorney general has the potential to become a major campaign issue for the Democrats this year.
"The real question is whether Meese is indicted," said a Republican close to the White House. "If he is, the sleaze issue becomes very, very big. If he isn't, then it could fade."
Sources familiar with surveys taken for the White House show that the issue of ethics is currently less important than the economy or key foreign policy issues but that it has, in the words of one official, "the potential for growth, all of it at our expense."
This official said that the convictions of former White House officials Michael K. Deaver and Lyn Nofziger had made voters more conscious of influence-peddling, but added: "People know that a lot of that goes on in Washington, whether there are convictions or not. There has never been a sitting attorney general of the United States indicted before."
One Republican source said that in a year in which the economy will not be a clear-cut advantage for either party and Republicans may have the advantage on foreign policy issues, "the ethics issue could fill the vacuum -- to the advantage of the Democrats."
The ethics issue is of particular concern to Republicans because it is important to ticket-splitting and independent voters who often provide the margin of victory or defeat in close elections.
A number of conservative allies of Meese have rallied around him and told him not to step aside, according to administration sources. But even in conservative ranks there is some uneasiness about what could happen if Meese remains in office. The conservative Copley newspapers in Meese's hometown of San Diego, traditionally staunch supporters of the attorney general, recently called for his resignation.
White House chief of staff Howard H. Baker Jr. and other White House officials declined yesterday to respond to requests for comment on the latest disclosures.
When the pipeline story first broke, Baker said that asking Meese to resign would be like "pitching people to the lions without proof" but also said that the White House would be keeping "very close tab" on the investigation.
Sources said that White House counsel Arthur B. Culvahouse Jr. pushed for declassification of the memos, which were reviewed by an interagency group and officially declassified on Friday. The concern in the White House, according to sources familiar with the process, was "to avoid any appearance of a coverup."
Sources close to Meese said they had encouraged him not to resign or step aside pending completion of McKay's investigation. Some of these sources said that such a move, even if taken as an act of loyalty to Reagan, would be viewed politically as an admission that he had done something wrong.
Unless Meese is indicted or decides to step aside, it is considered highly unlikely that Reagan would pressure him to quit. In conversations with friends, Reagan has sometimes pointed out that he stood by former secretary of Labor Raymond J. Donovan, who in 1984 became the first sitting Cabinet member ever to be indicted. He was acquitted on racketeering charges two years later.
Vice President Bush, who could be damaged if the administration's ethical standards become a major issue, brought up the Donovan case when he was asked by reporters on Jan. 30 about his view of Meese.
Bush, after defending Meese, said Donovan was "accused in the press" and by "politicians" of "having done something wrong" and spent a quarter of a million dollars defending himself in court. Sources familiar with Reagan's views said the president has often defended Donovan in the same words.