BERLIN — Germany's president and its biggest-selling newspaper traded blows Thursday over whether he tried to prevent it from publishing a report on a controversial private loan, adding to the embattled head of state's troubles.
President Christian Wulff has faced intense pressure to explain himself since it emerged that he left an angry message Dec. 12 on the voicemail of Bild newspaper's editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann — the day before the story appeared.
Wulff insisted in a television interview Wednesday, in which he repeatedly stressed the importance of transparency, that he hadn't tried to block the report and had merely asked for it to be delayed a day so that "we could talk about it, so that it could be correct."
But Diekmann expressed "astonishment" about that in a letter Thursday to Wulff. He wrote that Bild had already agreed to a one-day delay on Dec. 11, and that Wulff's spokesman — whom the president fired just before Christmas without giving reasons — provided and then retracted responses before Wulff called Diekmann.
He said Bild wanted to publish the text of the message "in order to clear up misunderstandings regarding the actual motivation and contents of your call" and asked for Wulff's approval "in the spirit of transparency you have spoken of."
Wulff said later Thursday he didn't want the transcript published. Bild said it regretted his decision as it meant "the discrepancies ... cannot be cleared up" in that spirit.
"The words spoken in an exceptionally emotional situation were meant exclusively for you and for no one else," Wulff wrote in a letter to the editor released by his office. He noted that Diekmann had already accepted an apology from him in mid-December "and the matter was dealt with between us. From my point of view, it should stay that way."
Wulff stuck to his version of events, saying he had seen "no obvious reason" why Bild couldn't wait another day with the story. The president was on a visit to the Persian Gulf at the time.
The president noted that he had said in Wednesday's interview that the call to Diekmann was "a serious mistake that I am sorry for and apologize for."
Wulff was Chancellor Angela Merkel's candidate for the presidency and is a former deputy leader of her conservative party. A resignation would be embarrassing and distracting for Merkel as she tries to tame the eurozone debt crisis.
According to Bild, Wulff left the message after failing to get through to Diekmann, who was on a business trip.
Bild reported Dec. 13 that Wulff received a €500,000 ($650,000) private loan from the wife of a wealthy businessman and friend, apparently at below market rates, in 2008. He used the money to buy a house.
At the time, he was governor of Lower Saxony state. But months before he became president in 2010, regional opposition lawmakers asked Wulff if he had business relations with his longtime friend Egon Geerkens, a former jeweler and investor. He said he hadn't, failing to mention the substantial loan from Geerkens' wife.
Prosecutors say they see no evidence of a criminal offense regarding the loan and won't investigate. But Germany's largely ceremonial president is supposed to serve as a moral authority, and critics have raised questions over Wulff's integrity and judgment.
Before Christmas, Wulff apologized for not disclosing the loan in 2010. That appeared to calm matters until news of the call emerged this week.
A senior opposition lawmaker said Thursday's exchange between Bild and Wulff showed the president "doesn't fulfill the standards for this office."
"President Wulff has finally reduced his credibility to zero," the Left Party's Ulrich Maurer said. He called for Merkel to "make clear that his time in office is at an end."