February 27th, 2013
09:24 PM ET
1 year ago

Exchange between Bob Woodward and White House official in spotlight

(CNN) - An email exchange between two old Washington hands – one, a longtime journalist, and the second, a source in the Obama administration – is at the center of a political controversy Thursday as two sides read the messages differently.

The veteran journalist is Bob Woodward, who broke the Watergate scandal and wrote a book about the debt ceiling negotiations in the summer of 2011. The Obama administration source is Gene Sperling, a senior economic aide to President Barack Obama and a veteran of the Clinton administration.

Gene Sperling will be Candy Crowley's guest on CNN's State of the Union, which runs Sunday at 9 a.m. and noon Eastern.

They traded emails, Woodward said, as he prepared to report that President Barack Obama was "moving the goal posts" around the forced spending cuts, known as the sequester.

That irked the White House, he said Wednesday on CNN's "The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer," and led to the email exchange between Woodward and Sperling.

"They're not happy at all," with what he was reporting, Woodward said.

"It was said very clearly, 'You will regret doing this,' " he continued, intimating a threat.

Politico published the emails on Thursday, which a Democrat with knowledge of identified as between Woodward and Sperling. White House Press Secretary Jay Carney did not dispute that the published emails were accurate.

The part of the email from Sperling to Woodward that used the word "regret" said: "But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying [sic] that [Obama] asking for revenues is moving the goal post. I know you may not believe this, but as a friend, I think you will regret staking out that claim."

"The idea that the sequester was to force both sides to go back to try at a big or grand barain [sic] with a mix of entitlements and revenues (even if there were serious disagreements on composition) was part of the DNA of the thing from the start."

The two were trading words over the deal White House and Congress struck in the summer of 2011, an agreement to increase the federal debt limit in exchange for the spending cuts – a draconian measure which was never expected to take effect but are now set to trigger on Friday. Instead, the forced spending cuts were designed to incentivize further deficit negotiations.

Woodward reported that the White House was agreeing with the forced spending cuts to negotiate in the future a deal which replaced the broad and indiscriminate spending cuts in the sequester with more palatable cuts and without additional funds through tax increases.

Obama has stumped for a sequester replacement which balances spending cuts with additional tax revenue gained through eliminating tax loopholes.

"[W]hen the president asks that a substitute for the sequester include not just spending cuts but also new revenue, he is moving the goal posts," Woodward wrote in an op-ed published by The Washington Post late last week.

"His call for a balanced approach is reasonable, and he makes a strong case that those in the top income brackets could and should pay more. But that was not the deal he made."

He spoke by phone with Sperling, a conversation which was apparently heated.

After the email from Sperling, which included an apology for the sharp phone call, Woodward wrote back not taking offense, "You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion."

A White House official said Wednesday evening – after the CNN interview – that the email Woodward referenced "was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation. The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more. And Mr. Woodward responded to this aide's email in a friendly manner."

"Of course no threat was intended" in that email, the official said.

And former Obama adviser David Axelrod tweeted that the e-mails were "cordial."

But Woodward said on CNN that the White House objection to his reporting has no basis in facts.

"It's irrefutable. That's exactly what happened," he said. "I'm not saying this is a moving of the goal posts that was a criminal act or something like that. I'm just saying that's what happened."

Carney spoke about the emails specifically and the Obama administration's approach to working with the press on Thursday, saying "the president expects us to fully explain his policies, to answer questions about his positions and to make clear when we believe factual errors are being stated, which is what we do."

"Gene Sperling, in keeping with a demeanor I have been familiar with for more than twenty years, was incredibly respectful, referred to Mr. Woodward as his friend and apologized for raising his voice," Carney said. "I think you can not read those emails and come away with the impression that Gene was threatening anybody."

Also see:

– Spending cuts mean Congress is grounded from military planes

–Congressional Republicans discussing plan giving Obama flexibility on cuts

– Polls: Obama holds upper hand over budget cuts

– Immigration detainee release under fire

Watch The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer weekdays at 4pm to 6pm ET and Saturdays at 6pm ET. For the latest from The Situation Room click here.


Filed under: Bob Woodward • Budget • Deficit • President Obama • TV-The Situation Room • White House
soundoff (1,002 Responses)
  1. Phillp Bunn

    Unfortunately, The White House, as well as many local law enforcing agencies, think that they are above the law:THEY'RE NOT The public has a right to know how their elected officals act and respond, whether that is haphazard or with a semblance of dignity. Obama has a job to do and it's time that he "gets off the road and off his ass" and gets to it. He wanted the job; he campaigned for the job; he spend billions trying to get the job; he said he could do the job; "he said 'our best days are yet to come'", well Jack, prove it. Quit playing rock star while your roadies threaten reporters,all at the taxpayer's expense, and GO TO WORK!!!

    February 28, 2013 12:06 am at 12:06 am |
  2. western reader

    Wow! I don't believe this. A journalism icon who brought down a corrupt President (NIxon) threatened by the White House staffer? Even Tricky Dick wasn't that stupid. Major dumb move. I'm willing to bet some heads are rolling in the White House tonight.

    February 28, 2013 12:07 am at 12:07 am |
  3. rob

    obviously the whitehouse acted stupidly, let me be clear, we can use this as a teachable moment, now let's go play golf, or meet some hollywood stars, or have a vacation or something. Anything but meet with congress and come up with a responsible plan to tackle the root of the problem which serves the future of the USA instead of their own election cycles. No evil-doer could ever hope to inflict as much damage onto us as our own politicians do. Is there an adult in the room somewhere? I think our innefficient, bloated, top heavy, federal benefit addicted government needs an intervention. Not that writing this will change anything but it makes me feel a little better.

    February 28, 2013 12:09 am at 12:09 am |
  4. BeverlyNC

    Woodward must be desperate for attention. President Obama nor the White House do not need to threaten anyone.The Republicans are blowing up our economy, subverting the intended way our government is supposed to work (where the House is responsible for the budget without needing the President to do their job for them), and filibustering every single piece of legislation (a record 387 times) to stop all legislation for jobs, economic recovery, infrastructure, healthcare, and veteran benefits. Republicans are bitter and happy to betray the People and destroy the country as their Party also self-destructs from no leadership or values. Woodward's relevance ending with bringing down Nixon,

    February 28, 2013 12:10 am at 12:10 am |
  5. Rusty

    This is what our country has become well what u expect with the banana boat dictator in charge

    February 28, 2013 12:10 am at 12:10 am |
  6. Jerry

    Woodward is exactly right. Obama made a deal, and now he is trying to reneg on it and get a different deal, and then complains when the other party doesnt give him what he wants. Totally disingenuous on his part, which is what we have come to expect from him. Given the dysfunctional nature of our government these days, this reminds me of the line in Argo, that this is the best bad idea they have. If Obama wants a deal, he should put out something that is all spending cuts, just like the deal he originally proposed.

    February 28, 2013 12:10 am at 12:10 am |
  7. dadpasadena

    Mr. Woodward isn't all what he seems to the general public. Read Russ Baker's book "Family of Secrets" and you'll discover Bob Woodward's role in other highly political scenarios involving other White House operations and it isn't just a journalistic endeavor. He seems to have this proclivity of bringing down or building up Presidents based on ulterior motives that the Media hasn't either caught on to or just don't care to dig deeper regarding his connections with other government agencies that wield extraordinary power in Washington. This "crybaby" act on CNN is enough to make me want to dab my eyes with vinegar and water.

    February 28, 2013 12:11 am at 12:11 am |
  8. Jim

    One of the biggest jokes on the planet is that the US Military needs any more money. Woodward is way to informed to express feigned concern that the President of the United States is somehow risking American security by allowing the military budget to not increase. People should pull out the very good book 'Ike's Bluff' and read from the Nations greatest military commander since Washington about the dangers of over funding and bloating our military. He coined the term Military Industrial Complex (actually Political-Military-Industrial Complex) and he saw just how dangerous and wasteful this empire was going to get without a seasoned military man in the White House to tell the generals and the contractors 'No, I don't need another aircraft carrier at $50B a pop but thanks for asking".

    As for Woodward's point of who initiated the idea it might have been relevant pre-election debate fodder but at this point its totally moot because the Republican's created the conditions for it and then agreed to it.

    February 28, 2013 12:11 am at 12:11 am |
  9. John Krats

    Whatever? At least Bob Woodward has a real job. I am waiting for the US President to at least pretend he holds a paying government job.

    February 28, 2013 12:12 am at 12:12 am |
  10. Steve Garing

    Apparently Obama would like to do away with BOTH the first and second Constitutional Amendments. He wants to control the press, not be criticized by it. And finally a journalist is pulling back the curtain on the wizard who has had the media almost unanimously lockstep in praise and support of him. Don't be cowed Bob – stand up to the Bully In Chief.

    February 28, 2013 12:12 am at 12:12 am |
  11. us_1776

    Woodward, you have lost your mind.

    Now you are inventing things that never happened.

    .

    February 28, 2013 12:12 am at 12:12 am |
  12. Mike

    Send in the drones!

    February 28, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  13. Smeagel4T

    The fundamental question here the Speaker of the House has to decide – does he wanna be leader of a political party or does he want to be Speaker of the House of the United States?

    February 28, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  14. Martha

    I knew Bob Woodward could write, I just didn't know he could whine.

    February 28, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  15. Bob

    Sad to see Bob Woodword turning to the "Look at me, I am still relevant" approach like he were Joan Rivers or something.

    February 28, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  16. The Veteran

    Woodward is garbage. We can plainly see what they meant, and it certainly was not a threat. More like a bit of advice.....

    February 28, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  17. Jarrod

    My feeling about Mr. Woodward is that he is attempting to "sensationalize" something from basically nothing I can see here. But since he was once the great Watergate reporter, everyone will stop what they are doing and believe his every word.

    February 28, 2013 12:13 am at 12:13 am |
  18. kekc

    Obama is a big mistake.

    February 28, 2013 12:14 am at 12:14 am |
  19. The Veteran

    It does not matter that revenue was raised slightly in December. What matters is what the American people want. And they clearly want taxes raised on the rich, and they don't want Social Security messed with.

    February 28, 2013 12:15 am at 12:15 am |
  20. Veritas Lavinga

    Yet another Democrat scandal. Benghazi and now this.

    Barak Insane Ubama, impeachment is now in reach. Goodbye sir!

    February 28, 2013 12:15 am at 12:15 am |
  21. mec

    and this surprises anyone how?!?!?! Team O is all about propaganda and bully tactics.It's not surprising someone finally got the back hand. Frankly, I was waiting for it when the press secretary got pummeled by reporters asking about Team O's agenda group's 500k donation "meet the president" policy.

    February 28, 2013 12:17 am at 12:17 am |
  22. Luis

    I think the Obama administration is getting ready to begin assassinating those who stand in their way just as the Clinton's did before them. In fact, the Clintons (Bill and Hillary) have so much blood on their hands that they can be tried for murder in a court of law and found guilty.

    February 28, 2013 12:17 am at 12:17 am |
  23. alain

    Hmm, could the body of the email be released? Because the third to last paragraph shows an interesting response from the White House's side

    February 28, 2013 12:18 am at 12:18 am |
  24. Chris

    The White House was just stating the obvious – Woodward will regret publishing that article. It will impact his credibility going forward. The idea that he interprets that as some form of threat is a stretch.

    February 28, 2013 12:18 am at 12:18 am |
  25. CK

    I'm not sure how I feel about this yet, awaiting confirmation on whether Woodward is a republican or not.

    February 28, 2013 12:19 am at 12:19 am |
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