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German President Spars With Newspaper as Dispute Deepens

A public spat broke out between German President Christian Wulff and the country’s largest newspaper, deepening the dispute a day after Wulff said his attempt to intervene over a story was a “terrible mistake.”

Bild, the country’s biggest selling newspaper, today challenged Wulff’s statement in an interview late yesterday that his Dec. 12 phone call to its editor, Kai Diekmann, was meant to delay a story about a private home loan for a day, rather than to block it. Wulff rebuffed a Bild request to publish the voice mail he left on Diekmann’s phone.

“Those words, spoken in an extraordinarily emotional situation, were meant exclusively for you,” Wulff wrote in a letter to Diekmann that was made public by the president’s office. Wulff said he was “astounded” that elements of the message had been made public.

Wulff’s pledge not to resign has, for the moment, spared Chancellor Angela Merkel the political challenge of pushing through another presidential candidate. Still, questions involving a private loan and Wulff’s subsequent conduct escalated even as coalition leaders such as Vice Chancellor Philipp Roesler called for an end to the debate.

Elected to the largely ceremonial post in 2010, Wulff has been in the media spotlight since last month after Bild reported he had negotiated a 500,000-euro ($640,000) loan from the wife of a businessman friend, Egon Geerkens, to pay for a new home when he was the state premier of Lower Saxony in 2008.

Renewed Pressure

After withstanding the initial round of criticism, Wulff came under renewed pressure as reports of the phone call emerged this week. Wulff said in yesterday’s interview on ARD and ZDF television that his intention had been to delay publication until he returned from a state trip to the Persian Gulf region.

Before the interview, Merkel expressed “full confidence” that Wulff, a former deputy chairman of her Christian Democratic Union, would answer outstanding issues.

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

Public support for Wulff has declined, ARD reported late yesterday citing a poll. Fifty percent of respondents said he should quit, compared with 26 percent on Dec. 19, it said. The Jan. 2-4 poll of 500 people has a margin of error of as many as 3.1 percentage points.

Wulff, 52, was elected in June 2010 with the backing of Merkel’s coalition after his predecessor, Horst Koehler, unexpectedly quit. 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.

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