WHITE HOUSE chief of staff Howard Baker Jr. has a job to do. He ought to tell Edwin Meese to step out of his attorney general post - or at least step aside until Mr. Meese's legal troubles clear up. This isn't the kind of decision a chief of staff asks a president to make.
In the Carter White House, chief of staff Hamilton Jordan took himself out of the picture after being charged with a cocaine violation - unfairly, it turned out.
Meese's problems run broader and deeper than Jordan's. Two independent counsel are after him. A grand jury working for one counsel is looking into Iran-contra matters. Meese's initial inquiry into the arms sales to Iran and diversion of profits to the contras was flawed. Did the fault lie in political motives, or ineptitude, or both?
The Wedtech scandal: Did Meese benefit when the administration asked the Army to rethink its decision denying a lucrative deal to the defense contractor? Meese was working in the White House at the time. Friends and associates of Meese have already been indicted.
The Iraqi pipeline affair: Meese says he does not remember reading part of a memo, which he received, mentioning a bribe to Israeli officials. Such bribes are barred by federal law.
And the ``Baby Bell'' case: Meese met with officials of several telephone companies set up after the breakup of AT&T - companies in which Meese owned stock.
On Feb. 5 we urged an earlier Meese exit, arguing that ``the Justice Department could be ably run by another of its senior officers, such as William Weld.''
Unfortunately, on Tuesday Mr. Weld and five other top Justice officials beat Meese to the door. The department is being led by William Bradford Reynolds, its civil rights chief. Mr. Reynolds has made the department look more partisan than impartial with a recent memo: ``We must polarize the debate,'' he wrote. ``We must not seek `consensus,' we must confront.''
Weld and those who left with him are enhancing their careers by acting on principle and quitting. By staying on, Meese is hurting Republican prospects for the fall elections, abusing his friendship with President Reagan, and undercutting respect for the American process of justice.
Meese could eventually prove innocent of the charges. If so, his willingness to step aside for the short period remaining to the Reagan presidency would only redound to the attorney general's credit.