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German President Spares Merkel Crisis After ‘Terrible’ Error

German President Christian Wulff
German President Christian Wulff. Photographer: Michele Tantussi/Bloomberg

German President Christian Wulff said his attempt to intervene in the publication of a story about a home loan was a “terrible mistake,” though for now he spared Chancellor Angela Merkel a crisis by vowing to remain in office.

Wulff, elected to the largely ceremonial post in 2010, has been pilloried by politicians this week after reports that he called a newspaper editor last month in an effort to block the article, which revealed that he had taken out a mortgage from a wealthy friend.

“I know that I’ve done nothing illegal, but didn’t do everything right,” Wulff said in an interview with broadcasters ARD and ZDF last night. “I carry out my responsibility gladly and I took it on for five years.”

Before the interview, Merkel expressed “full confidence” that Wulff, a former deputy chairman of her Christian Democratic Union, would answer outstanding issues. The chancellor would have to find a replacement if Wulff were to step down, adding to her challenges as she confronts Europe’s debt crisis. Merkel resumes her public schedule today after the Christmas break, receiving a group of carol singers at the chancellery in Berlin.

Bild, Germany’s most-read newspaper, said this week that the president called its editor, Kai Diekmann, on Dec. 12 and left a voice message expressing anger at the forthcoming story and threatening legal action.

$648,000 Loan

The next day, Bild reported that Wulff had negotiated a 500,000-euro ($648,000) loan from the wife of businessman Egon Geerkens to pay for a new home when he was the state premier of Lower Saxony in 2008. It said Wulff called Diekmann back later and apologized for the tone and substance of the call.

The president said in yesterday’s interview that his intention had been to delay publication until he returned from a state trip to the Gulf region.

Bild disputed Wulff’s version, saying its editor-in-chief understood the president’s phone call as an attempt to kill the story, Deutschlandfunk reported today. “It was a call whose aim clearly was to stop this report,” the radio station quoted Nikolaus Blome, Bild’s Berlin bureau chief, as saying in an interview.

Wulff “missed a further opportunity, and possibly the last, to continue in office with dignity,” the newspaper said today. “Never has an incumbent German president faced so much criticism than Wulff over the bundle of dubious incidents.”

Public Support Waning

Public support for Wulff has declined since news of his private loan broke last month, ARD television reported late yesterday. Fifty percent of respondents said he should quit, compared with 26 percent on Dec. 19, the broadcaster said. The Jan. 2-4 poll of 500 people has a margin of error of as many as 3.1 percentage points.

“Anybody who holds high office must also know that he or she will become the subject of reporting -- and not only on issues that have to do with politics,” Merkel spokesman Georg Streiter told reporters yesterday in Berlin.

Details of the private credit swirled last month, forcing the president to apologize for failing to reveal the transaction. He told reporters on Dec. 22 that he realized his actions surrounding the loan were “irritating.”

Wulff, 52, was elected in June 2010 with the backing of Merkel’s coalition after his predecessor, Horst Koehler, unexpectedly quit amid criticism of comments he made about Germany’s military mission in Afghanistan. Wulff was elected only after three rounds of voting in the Federal Assembly, and Merkel’s majority in the assembly has since shrunk following regional election defeats last year that she blamed on the debt crisis.

The leader of the opposition Social Democrats, Sigmar Gabriel, reiterated that two presidential resignations in as many years would be undesirable. Still, “nobody would wish for a president who gives the impression that he’s not suitable for the office, politically or stylistically,” Gabriel wrote on his Facebook page.

Wulff told yesterday’s interviewers that he would carry on through the criticism rather than quit. Driving the point home, he attempted to quote the 33rd U.S. president.

“If it’s too hot in the kitchen, you shouldn’t want to become a cook, as Harry S. Truman said,” the president remarked.

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