German Scandal Adds to Pressure on Merkel

04.01.2012 10:55

WSJ: Nation's President, Picked by Chancellor, Faces Criticism for Seeking to Quash Press Coverage on Loan Received as Governor
BERLIN—A political scandal surrounding German President Christian Wulff intensified Tuesday as new information emerged that he tried to squelch media reports about his private business dealings.

The affair presents German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who nominated Mr. Wulff for the largely ceremonial position in 2010, with a new political headache as she scrambles to find a solution to the euro-zone debt crisis.
The story of Mr. Wulff's attempts to stifle media coverage first appeared in German newspapers over the weekend. Mr. Wulff, a senior member of Ms. Merkel's Christian Democratic Union party, learned last month that the mass-circulation daily tabloid Bild was about to publish a story about a private loan he received from a friend to finance the purchase of his home in 2008, when he was still governor of the state of Lower Saxony, Bild reported.

A furious Mr. Wulff called the cellphone of the newspaper's editor, Kai Diekmann, on Dec. 12, demanding in a voice mail that he stop the story, threatening "war" if Bild went to press with the allegations, according to Springer Verlag, the paper's publisher.

On Tuesday, daily Die Welt, which is also published by Springer and has historically aligned itself with Germany's conservative political establishment, said the president had summoned one of the reporters of its Sunday edition to his office in Berlin's Bellevue Palace in June.

The paper planned to publish an article about Mr. Wulff's family. Jan Eric Peters, editor in chief of the Welt newspaper group, said Mr. Wulff threatened to end all cooperation with the paper if it ran the story. "I decided to publish the story anyway," Mr. Peters said in a statement.

Mr. Wulff has acknowledged accepting a low-interest loan of €500,000 ($650,000 at today's rate) in 2008 from the wife of a friend, a local businessman named Egon Geerkens. Mr. Wulff used the money to purchase a single-family home.

After the transaction became known last month, Mr. Wulff refinanced the loan through a bank and paid back the Geerkens. The Spiegel Online website in December said that Mr. Wulff took several vacations at the expense of businessmen while he was governor of Lower Saxony and that Mr. Wulff's lawyers confirmed the report.

Critics say his actions were unethical for a sitting state premier.

On Dec. 22, after a week of silence, Mr. Wulff went before the cameras, and issued a brief public apology, denying any wrongdoing, but saying he had learned that "not everything that is legal is right."

The revelations of Mr. Wulff's financial dealings and his attempts to muzzle the press have unleashed a national debate about whether he is worthy of his office.

Though the German presidency is largely ceremonial, holders of the position are expected to serve as a moral authority and defend the German Constitution, including the rights of press freedom. Critics say Mr. Wulff has shown he can no longer fulfill that duty.

"The attack on press freedom is unbearable," Erwin Lotter, a lawmaker from the Free Democratic Party, Ms. Merkel's junior coalition partner, said in an interview. "Wulff has become intolerable once and for all," he said. "The president should be able to comment on ethical and moral questions concerning society. That requires a particularly high degree of credibility."

Following the initial disclosures, German weekly Der Spiegel ran a cover story under the damning title: The Wrong President, an allusion to Ms. Merkel's decision to back Mr. Wulff, a political ally and one-time rival, instead of the more popular east German dissident Joachim Gauck, in 2010.

Ms. Merkel pushed Mr. Wulff as her candidate to succeed Horst Koehler, a Merkel appointee who resigned last year.

The move was a political calculation on Ms. Merkel's part, say analysts, another example of how she successfully sidelined a potential threat. In the first round of Mr. Wulff's parliamentary confirmation vote, more than 40 members of Ms. Merkel's own party voted against him.

Write to Bernd Radowitz and William Boston