The scramble was on again Friday among President Clinton's already seriously scrambled aides.
Three days before they are scheduled to depart for a summit meeting in Moscow, senior administration officials wondered which Russians they would face across the conference tables. Clinton's aides began rewriting his planned remarks on the future of U.S.-Russian relations."You've got an economy collapsing and a president on the verge of resignation, and we're about to go there for a summit," one administration official said Friday afternoon, referring to Russia and President Boris Yeltsin. "Of course they've been going crazy at the White House."
Sandy Berger, Clinton's national security adviser, gave a more measured assessment: "Well, I think that, obviously, one needs to make adjustments as the situation changes."
While presidential trips abroad generally are as subtle and delicate as hurricanes, they are planned with the unstinting fussiness of Chinese operas.
The thick book laying out the president's schedule times his movements down to what minute he will enter which elevator in what dank basement (unless Clinton rewrites the official schedule as he goes).
Before the president went to Africa last spring, aides were dispatched as much as a month ahead of time to haggle over access and camera angles. With prompting from the administration, Botswana even rushed a new cellular telephone system into service just ahead of Air Force One's arrival.
But this time, the only thing some weary presidential advisers seemed certain of was that the news media would blame the White House for Russian turmoil. "It's our fault," one administration official said, his sarcasm matched only by his exasperation. "If we'd been focused, we would have improved the Russian tax collection system. Why argue with you guys anymore? Terrorism? Our fault."
The basic elements of the trip are unlikely to change, several officials said Friday. The pre-chewed matter dispensed on presidential visits - the so-called deliverables - was prepared during weeks of talks among aides. The two presidents will issue joint statements on weapons proliferation, Kosovo, Caspian Sea oil reserves and the Persian Gulf. And Clinton's major stops - including a joint press conference with Yeltsin, a speech and a visit to a school - are unlikely to be scrapped or adjusted.
But the all-important tone of the trip, along with some of the president's meetings and his precise words, may be debated right up until he lands in Moscow Tuesday morning - or even longer.
"What the president says in public, where he goes, who he meets with - that's more of what we're reviewing right now," one administration official said. "You want to project confidence and our ability to get the job done, but the fact is it's fluid."
The White House has been a busy place this August. For the most part, one set of aides has handled the biggest scandal of Clinton's career - his ac-know-ledg-ment of an inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky - while another set managed the biggest counter-terrorist strike of his presidency, the cruise missiles launched last week at Afghanistan and Sudan.
But there has been some crossover, including, of course, the president himself. Clinton will depart for Russia Monday afternoon after what appears to have been one of the least restful family vacations imaginable.
Along with Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, Yeltsin is the only major non-communist leader who was serving when Clinton was first elected in 1992. It is a shaky trio. Kohl is facing a tough re-election campaign this year, and in May Clinton turned a stop in Germany into a virtual campaign swing for his old friend.
The president has also built an affectionate and trusting relationship with Yeltsin, his aides say. But even before this week's furor, he had planned to hedge U.S. bets in Russia. On Wednesday, he will meet with leaders of Russia's parliament and regions. That meeting, Clinton's aides said Friday, now takes on new significance.