WASHINGTON -- John H. Sununu, the strong-willed and combative White House chief of staff whose position in the Bush administration has remained rock solid through many a storm, appeared yesterday for the first time to be in trouble.
Friends acknowledged their concern that Mr. Sununu had not only failed to quell the controversy over his acceptance of free travel at government or corporate expense but had made it worse by not being sensitive to the environment in which he was being judged.
At the same time, his critics contended that the latest revelations offerred even more evidence that Mr. Sununu had a blind spot on questions of ethics and was thumbing his nose at enemies in the Washington establishment.
And, most importantly, the president went on the record for the first time yesterday agreeing that Mr. Sununu had created "an appearance problem."
In his first public comments on reports that Mr. Sununu rode in a chauffeur-driven government car to New York last week for a stamp auction, Mr. Bush said he had looked into the incident and was satisfied that his chief of staff needed the car to make phone calls and do other business along the way.
"But nobody likes the appearance of impropriety," the president acknowledged. He said he considered that trip "special" and did not expect to see it "set a precedent."
"It doesn't say anybody that has access to a car can go anyplace anyone wants at any time," Mr. Bush insisted. His statement was later interpreted by aides to mean that Mr. Sununu would no longer have unrestricted use of the car, as he had claimed Sunday.
There was little expectation here that Mr. Sununu might suddenly be fired because of the questions about his ethical conduct that began with reports two months ago of extensive travel aboard military jets for political and private purposes.
Mr. Bush tends to dig in his heels when those around him are attacked, as in the case of Vice President Dan Quayle. He also believes that he owes a debt to Mr. Sununu, the former governor who helped engineer Mr. Bush's victory in the 1988 New Hampshire primary.
But the betting was that within a few months, Mr. Sununu would probably find himself with a new job in the Cabinet or perhaps in the Bush re-election campaign.
"I think for the first time that he's in trouble," said Stuart Eizenstat, domestic policy adviser to President Jimmy Carter and now a Washington lobbyist. "It's gotten to the point where it meets the blush test, and the embarrassment is growing."
Charles Black, a GOP political consultant and close friend of Mr. Sununu's, admitted, "It's frustrating to him and to all of us that this stuff keeps coming up."
He said Mr. Sununu had taken the government car for the New York trip because he'd been so heavily criticized for using military aircraft for personal outings. The chief of staff also got corporate sponsors to provide him air travel to political events as an alternative to military planes.
"It might be that there's nothing he can do" to stop the damage, Mr. Black said. "I can see it becoming a problem."
Even after Mr. Bush publicly rebuked his chief of staff last month by sharply restricting his access to the military planes, Mr. Sununu left the White House early on a busy day so he could get to the auction where he reportedly spent $5,000 on stamps. Then he sent the car back to Washington empty, so he could ride home from a New Jersey fund-raiser aboard a corporate jet.
Mr. Bush, who offered his comments on Mr. Sununu to reporters at the beginning of a meeting with congressional leaders, did not reflect on the propriety of his chief of staff's relying on corporate sponsors to get him to and from political events.
But White House spokesman Marlin Fitzwater released a list of the five such trips Mr. Sununu has made since his use of military planes was restricted May 9 and indicated that the practice would continue.
In each case, he said, White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray had reviewed the trip plans in advance and had determined that there was no "appearance of impropriety."
The five approved trips included:
* Mr. Sununu's ride home from the New Jersey fund-raiser June 12in a jet chartered by Beneficial Corp., a financial management concern based in New Jersey.
* A trip Tuesday night to a state party fund-raiser in Des Moines, Iowa, aboard a jet provided by Kirke/Van Orsdel Inc., a small insurance firm owned by two state GOP activists.
* Travel to St. Louis May 20 for a fund-raiser for Gov. John D. Ashcroft in a jet financed by Donald Bryant, an insurance executive.
* A June 7 ride to Portland, Maine, for a state party fund-raiser. The jet was provided by Fiber Materials Inc. of Biddeford, Maine.
* A trip to Chicago for a fund-raiser June 11 to benefit the Republican Governors' Association aboard a jet owned by three individuals: Howard Bender, Martin Bender and John Mason.