WASHINGTON -- As soon as word reached the White House Saturday that Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin had set his nation on the edge of a constitutional cliff, members of a powerful group of presidential advisers dubbed the "Principals' Committee" began arriving at the White House to face their first crisis together.
For weeks, the "Principals" had been hashing out what the U.S. response should be to Mr. Yeltsin's political troubles at home. The consensus was vintage Clinton administration, combining two seemingly disparate viewpoints.
The decision was that the administration should stick by Mr. Yeltsin, whom it considers the best hope for democracy in Russia, insofar as U.S.-Russian relations are concerned, while staying out of internal Russian politics altogether.
But if Mr. Yeltsin challenged the legitimacy of the Russian congress and called for a plebiscite, the new U.S. president would be quick to rally behind him.
On Saturday, this is exactly what happened, and the Clinton administration stuck to its script:
First, Mr. Clinton immediately expressed his support for Mr. Yeltsin and was one of the first world leaders to do so. The vehicle for this was easy -- the president simply emphasized that, as far as the United States was concerned, the April 3-4 summit in Vancouver, British Columbia, between Mr. Clinton and Mr. Yeltsin was still on.
Then the administration began doing something it had steadfastly refused to do before the fact -- offer sympathetic explanations for Mr. Yeltsin's actions.
The White House communications director, George Stephanopoulos, read a presidential statement that praised Mr. Yeltsin's "effort to break the political impasse," noting that the president was "Russia's only democratically elected leader."
Yesterday, the administration inched even closer to Mr. Yeltsin.
In an appearance on ABC's "This Week with David Brinkley," Madeleine K. Albright, U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, called Mr. Yeltsin's actions "appropriate," adding: "We have supported this approach."
She also said that the Russian congress has "less legitimacy" than Mr. Yeltsin, a formulation that until now neither Mr. Clinton nor his aides would make publicly.
It seems clear that the Clinton administration sought to assure Mr. Yeltsin that he would not be abandoned if he took the steps he has taken, but administration sources said that the support for him had to be expressed delicately because one of Mr. Yeltsin's problems in Russia is that some consider him too close to the United States.
/# "You don't want to do something
to try and help him that actually ends up hurting him," one administration aide said yesterday.
In addition, the "Principals' Committee" wants to ensure that if Mr. Yeltsin loses in the showdown, Mr. Clinton won't have gone so far out on a limb that the new Russian leadership would view him as hostile.
With that in mind, Mr. Stephanopoulos had this to say Saturday when asked if Mr. Yeltsin's actions were unconstitutional: "That is not for us to decide. That is for the Russian people to decide."
The caution, meticulous planning and teamwork apparently are very much in keeping with the working style of the "Principals' Committee."
Led by low-key Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher, the committee conducts methodical, lengthy meetings to examine all dimensions of a policy, runs a stick-to-the-script message machine primed for damage control and is guided by a desire to embrace, but not be co-opted by, the bureaucracy.
This style took root in early 1992 in a 7-foot-by-8-foot office at the Clinton campaign headquarters in Little Rock, Ark., where Nancy Soderberg, a former top aide to Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., set up a conference call each morning with then-candidate Clinton's other key foreign policy advisers: Anthony Lake, a Mount Holyoke College professor; Washington trade lawyer Samuel Berger, who frequently traveled with the PTC candidate and who first brought Mr. Lake to his attention; and Leon Fuerth, then-Sen. Al Gore's foreign policy adviser.
These advisers form the core of Mr. Clinton's foreign-policy team: Mr. Lake, now national security adviser, and Mr. Berger, who in all respects except for his title as deputy is Mr. Lake's equal; Mr. Fuerth, a senior adviser to both the president and the vice president; and Ms. Soderberg, who is the National Security Council's staff director.
Their pattern of close communication survives in the almost daily phone calls among Mr. Lake, Mr. Berger and other principals, including Defense Secretary Les Aspin; Gen. Colin L. Powell, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman; Director of Central Intelligence R. James Woolsey; and sometimes Vice President Gore, who was among those who assembled at the White House Saturday.
Yesterday, with Mr. Clinton in Little Rock, it was Mr. Lake who briefed the president on the Russian situation, the White House said.