WASHINGTON -- John H. Sununu, the embattled White House chief of staff, said yesterday that he intends to keep his job through the end of President Bush's first term in office, but his earlier claims of indispensability were shattered by the latest pronouncements on his travel policies.
Mr. Sununu told reporters, "I intend to get the president's agenda done and help him get re-elected." But for the first time since shortly before Mr. Bush took office, the top White House aide said he would probably leave the administration after a second term begins, presuming Mr. Bush is re-elected.
Administration officials speculated that any further breaches of Mr. Bush's ethical standards might prompt Mr. Sununu's departure a lot sooner.
As Mr. Sununu was struggling to recover from a third presidential rebuke in as many months over his use of government or corporate transportation for political and personal travel, the White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, debunked the notion that the chief of staff couldn't use commercial aircraft because he needs to be in constant contact with the White House.
"He can fly on a commercial flight, or a chartered flight, however he wants to go," Mr. Fitzwater said yesterday. "It's a case-by-case basis in terms of availability and flights and contact and security and those matters."
President Bush, who has drawn tighter and tighter restrictions on Mr. Sununu's travel privileges, has no objection to his chief of staff's getting around the same way everybody else does when he is not on official business, Mr. Fitzwater said.
The spokesman's comments to reporters completely undercut the main rationale Mr. Sununu has been using to justify the use of military planes for trips to dentist and ski weekends, a chauffeur-driven government car to a New York stamp auction and free corporate jets to Republican fund-raisers.
"I have to be able to communicate, to work on sensitive papers, to coordinate the White House activities even while I'm traveling," Mr. Sununu said two weeks ago.
He has to be able to check in with the White House "every 10 or 15 minutes to make sure what's going on," he added.
Following the chief of staff's acknowledgment Saturday that he had made "mistakes" that contributed to the controversy, officials said they believed he had gotten the message that his job was on the line because of Mr. Bush's embarrassment at his lack of judgment on ethical questions.
His future remained uncertain, however.
White House Counsel C. Boyden Gray determined yesterday that Mr. Sununu had not violated the 1989 ethics law by soliciting a ride to Chicago and back earlier this month in a corporate plane owned by a Washington businessman, Stuart Bernstein, because Mr. Bernstein was determined not to pose a potential conflict of interest problem.
But the solicitation, made by Mr. Sununu after the Republican Governors Association made three unsuccessful attempts to find a corporate donor who would pass muster with Mr. Gray, came as a surprise to Mr. Fitzwater, who had been assured by Mr. Sununu that he had never approached any corporate source personally.
Mr. Sununu also provided incorrect and misleading information to Mr. Gray on the sponsors of the Chicago trip.
"He's definitely used up some lives, but how many more of the nine he's got left is anybody's guess," another White House official of Mr. Sununu.
For his part, Mr. Sununu had already abandoned his contrition of last Saturday and was blaming his troubles yesterday on the nature of his job.
"Look, I've been in Washington for a while now to realize that it's all part of the process," he told reporters who encountered him at a speech site in northern Virginia. "It's part of being chief of staff."