German president under renewed fire after apology

BERLIN Thu Jan 5, 2012 1:15pm GMT

German President Christian Wulff is pictured during the recording of a television interview with journalists Bettina Schausten and Ulrich Deppendorf at the ARD main TV studios in Berlin, January 4, 2012. REUTERS/Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel/Pool

German President Christian Wulff is pictured during the recording of a television interview with journalists Bettina Schausten and Ulrich Deppendorf at the ARD main TV studios in Berlin, January 4, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Bundesregierung/Jesco Denzel/Pool

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BERLIN (Reuters) - Germany's top-selling Bild newspaper said on Thursday it planned to publish a potentially explosive transcript of a message left by President Christian Wulff for its editor trying to stop the publication of an embarrassing home loan story.

The move could further damage Wulff who on Wednesday went on television to try to defuse an escalating scandal about the private loan and his apparent attempt to pressure the paper.

The scandal could damage Chancellor Angela Merkel, who nominated Wulff to take over the presidency in 2010.

Under pressure to resign, an earnest-looking Wulff made clear on Wednesday he intended to cling to his job and until now the support of Merkel has ensured he is safe.

She is keen to avoid the distraction of a prolonged and divisive debate about a successor and, as his main sponsor, is herself vulnerable to charges of bad judgement.

German media and opposition lawmakers on Thursday renewed their attacks on Wulff, who in the television interview admitted to making a grave mistake in calling the editor of Bild last month and leaving a threatening message on his voicemail.

Wulff said he had not sought to quash the story, but only to delay its publication by a day to give him time to respond.

Bild disputes this and released a letter on Thursday from its top editor Kai Diekmann to Wulff seeking consent to publish a transcript of the message.

"We noted with surprise your statement on television that your call to my mailbox was not about stopping the report about your home loan but about delaying it for a day," wrote Diekmann.

"To clear up misunderstandings about the motives and content of your call, we think it is necessary to publish the transcript of your message."

"WAR"

German media have reported that Wulff threatened Bild with "war" and legal consequences if it published the report.

In the story, which Bild published last month, the paper reported that Wulff had received a home loan in 2008 at cheap rates from the wife of a wealthy businessman friend Egon Geerkens when he was conservative premier of the northern state of Lower Saxony.

He is accused of misleading the state parliament when he denied having any business links to Geerkens and his critics say he may have broken ministerial law.

Germans take the office of president seriously. The person in the post is expected to act as a moral authority for the nation, defending constitutional laws, including a commitment to press freedoms.

Public support for Wulff has fallen to 47 percent from 63 percent in a matter of days, a poll by ARD television showed.

Wednesday's television appearance, in which he portrayed himself as the victim of an aggressive media, was not enough for many newspapers which said the scandal was not over.

"The affair is not over with this television interview. The president has not won back the moral authority that enables him to exercise his office," wrote the Financial Times Deutschland, striking a similar tone to other papers.

While most politicians in Merkel's conservative party welcomed his statement, opposition members were more critical.

"The Wulff affair is not over," said senior Social Democrat lawmaker Thomas Oppermann. "The embattled president is becoming an increasing burden to Chancellor Merkel who chose him. Mrs Merkel must make clear that his behaviour is damaging the dignity of the office."

(Reporting by Madeline Chambers; Editing by Noah Barkin)

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