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Christian Wulff, Embattled Germany President, Sorry For Editor Call

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CHRISTIAN WULFF
In this photo provided by the German Government Press Office German President Christian Wulff during a television interview in which he is scheduled to respond to critics at ARD studio on January 4, 2012 in Berlin, Germany. (Jesco Denzel/Bundespresseamt - Pool via Getty Images) | Getty
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BERLIN — Germany's president said Wednesday that his angry phone call to a leading newspaper's editor as it prepared to publish a story about a private loan he had received was a serious mistake, but insisted he has no intention of resigning.

Christian Wulff, who was Chancellor Angela Merkel's candidate for the largely ceremonial presidency in 2010, went on German public television to defend himself amid mounting speculation that he would have to go.

"I carry my responsibility (as president) gladly. I took it on for five years and I would like to show after five years that I was a good and successful president," Wulff told ARD and ZDF television. Asked if he had considered quitting, he replied: "No."

"I have not violated any law, either now as president or before," he said.

The mass-circulation Bild daily reported for the first time on Dec. 13 that Wulff received a euro500,000 ($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. Months before he became president in 2010, regional opposition lawmakers asked Wulff if he had business relations with longtime friend Egon Geerkens, a former jeweler and investor. He said he hadn't, failing to mention the loan from Geerkens' wife.

Prosecutors have said 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.

Just before Christmas, Wulff apologized for not disclosing the loan in 2010. That appeared to calm matters; but on Monday it emerged that Wulff had called Bild editor-in-chief Kai Diekmann in an apparent attempt to halt the initial report on the loan.

Bild says Wulff tried to contact Diekmann, but didn't reach him because he was on a business trip.

The president then left an indignant message about Bild's research into the loan on Diekmann's cellphone mailbox and threatened legal action against the editor involved, it says. He also contacted Bild publisher Axel Springer's chief executive, Matthias Doepfner. Three days later, Wulff called Diekmann again to apologize.

The episode led to harsh criticism of Wulff by German media and some opposition politicians. After two days of silence from the president, a spokesman for Merkel made clear earlier Wednesday that the chancellor expected Wulff to explain himself further.

"The call to the editor-in-chief of Bild was a serious mistake that I am sorry for and apologize for," Wulff said. He acknowledged that he would need to "reorder" his relationship with the media.

Wulff insisted, however, that he hadn't tried to prevent the report. "I asked for it to be delayed by a day so that we could talk about it, so that it could be correct," he said.

"There are human rights even for presidents and their friends and relatives, and I wouldn't want to be president in a country where people can't borrow money from friends any more," he said.

Before becoming president, Wulff was a deputy leader of Merkel's conservative party.

A resignation would be embarrassing and distracting for Merkel as she tries to tame the eurozone debt crisis. A new president would have to be elected by a special parliamentary assembly within 30 days, and there's no single obvious candidate.

Hermann Groehe, the general secretary of Merkel's Christian Democrats, said it had been right for Wulff to face critical questions. "I am sure that with this, Christian Wulff will succesfully win back people's confidence," he said.

The opposition wasn't convinced.

"The debate isn't over, and this didn't clear the air," said Hubertus Heil, a senior lawmaker with the center-left Social Democrats.