WASHINGTON -- President Bush ordered yesterday a review of the policy by which his chief of staff has flown Air Force planes all over the country on personal and political trips, saying he wants to ensure his administration is "above even the perception of impropriety."
But the president insisted that top aide John H. Sununu has done nothing wrong by complying with the 4-year-old policy under which the White House says he was directed to use military aircraft for all travel so he can be easily reached in case of emergencies.
"I think it is appropriate to take another look at the policy," Mr. Bush told reporters yesterday. "We'll get our best people to review it . . . in light of the practice and see whether it should be altered in any way."
But he added, "I don't like this jumping all over Governor Sununu when he has compliedwith the policy and has made full disclosure. What more can you ask of a man?
"He has my full confidence," Mr. Bush declared.
The president's remarks, made at an impromptu meeting with reporters following an unrelated event on the White House south lawn, were his first public comments on the controversy that has swirled around Mr. Sununu since press accounts of his taxpayer-paid travel broke Sunday.
Mr. Bush's defense of Mr. Sununu as well as the announcement of his decision to review the travel policy also came after his spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, was pummeled with press inquiries about why Mr. Bush has been so silent on the issue.
Mr. Bush noted that Mr. Sununu was not only acting in compliance with a policy that had been in effect since 1987 when he took the trips but also agreed this week to release a list of all 77 trips involved, detailing their purpose and the amount of reimbursement he's made toward the cost of those not designated as official business.
"I don't know what more one could ask of a person," the president said.
Questions have been raised about Mr. Sununu's use of military planes because it has been more extensive than that of his predecessors, because he counted trips with personal and political overtones as official, and because the reimbursement provided for those trips designated as private -- at a rate equivalent to commercial fares as stipulated by the policy -- was substantially below what actual cost to the taxpayers would be.
Mr. Bush, who described himself "as one who's vowed to stay above even the appearance of impropriety," acknowledged there could be a "perception problem" with the policy.
The policy review will be conducted by White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray, who later told reporters it "won't take very long."
White House aides stressed that the review will focus only on the appropriateness of the policy and not on whether Mr. Sununu applied it correctly.