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. Bill

    The White House's actions and the state owned media's handling of it should surprise exactly no one.

    February 28, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  2. alpeaston

    Woodward comes across like a faded Hollywood star itching for a return to his former glory. He has not been a good reporter in decades and its time for him to retire. Nothing worse then the people we are supposed to trust to give us the real and truthful news being more concerned with their own celebrity and not accurate reporting! Sad day for the honorable man who expose Watergate!

    February 28, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  3. Carl

    Woodward is a has been trying to stay relevant after his lucky break with a bunch of squealers during the Nixon Watergate scandal. He's become rich off of it and is time to replenish his coffers. How can a credible reporter use examples for crises that would override any budget discussion to make a point of distinction between what the president says in normal times with what a previous president might not say during a crisis – as he goes on [[Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document" "Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not going to invade Iraq because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?'" Or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters,' ... because of some budget document?" ]] That is c.rappy reporting and extremely faulty logic – if not political, which defies logic every time

    February 28, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  4. Lars

    Poor ole Bob Woodward, not only has he lost a step or three, he can't even tell a threat from an attempt at an apology...unless he has ill intentions when he makes this false allegation that the "White House" actually threatened him.

    February 28, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  5. JoePub

    If there was a Republican in the WH, this would have gone viral on MSM.

    February 28, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  6. Dean

    Old man wanting to restore his glory. White House may or may not be misrepresenting things, but it's on the record. The story should NOT be about a "fact checker."

    February 28, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  7. Jack 2

    Obama has never been a leader and that's a large portion of the problem within our country. It takes a respected leader to get both sides to agree, not a combative liar.

    February 28, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  8. It's Me

    The king (i.e. Mr. Obama) does not like dissent from his subjects.

    February 28, 2013 11:05 am at 11:05 am |
  9. suegen

    Woodward has lost all credibility with these accusations. That email in no way reads as a threat. My 6th grader would understand inference in 'your regret' statement, which is youre wrong and you will end up eating your words. Sigh, Woodward trying to stay relevant in a town where that is everyones goal.

    February 28, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  10. Anonymous

    Obama you are the reason for this trouble...very simple

    February 28, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  11. Name

    These are not actual spending cuts. The sequester is just a reduction of the increases in government spending. If they plan on spending an additional 4% and 'sequester' 1% they are still INCREASING spending by 3%. Really nice plan guys! Bravo! (That's sarcasm for the idiots out there)....

    February 28, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  12. Shardik

    "...an e-mail from a senior administration official – who he would not name – communicated a message which caused him great concern."

    Funny how easily this could all be settled if he just produced the email.

    February 28, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  13. David

    The White House should not be criticizing reporters, unless they are factually wrong. Why they give interviews to Woodward is baffling. Woodward never has recovered since he wrote that first book on George W. Bush, in wish he seemed to be praising Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Woodward never really gave a follow-up critiques the disastrous decision of Bush. Sometimes it appears reporters attack those in high powered positions mainly because they are not given the front seats at the theater.

    February 28, 2013 11:06 am at 11:06 am |
  14. lerianis

    Difference between being threatened and told what the President foresees in the future.

    February 28, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  15. SusieKJ

    I'm really not sure what Woodward or CNN are doing here. Read the text of the emails and it is clear there was no threat and Woodward did not take it as a threat. This "story" is very disappointing.

    February 28, 2013 11:07 am at 11:07 am |
  16. Bill Bixby

    @joey The Executive Branch has shown no leadership at all. All this administration can do is blame their failures on other people. Explain to me what Obama does, that deserves a paycheck?

    February 28, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  17. NClaw441

    The press should (will they?) explore WHY Mr. Obama originally denied what he HAD to know was the truth, that he orginated the sequester plan. In fact, it may ultimately benefit him, if the "cuts" occur and no real harm is done.

    February 28, 2013 11:08 am at 11:08 am |
  18. kap912

    The Politico by publishing the actual emails annihilated Woodward's account of this. There was no threat but now Woodward is destroying his reputation by lying and is actually going to "regret this."

    February 28, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  19. olepi

    Sheesh, read the actual email. Much ado about nothing.

    February 28, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  20. Rob

    Lies and more lies, Obama and his crew, wow they are something

    February 28, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  21. j

    Sounds like he does regret it – I guess they were right.

    February 28, 2013 11:09 am at 11:09 am |
  22. Angry Irish

    Politico posted the "Threatening" emails. They're anything BUT threatening. Typical Conservative paranoia.

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  23. Stank eye

    Spin again, and we still continue to drink the Kool-aid.

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  24. Alina77

    "Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate"... Mr. Woodword wants a little bit of publicity here..nothing more.

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  25. vdanker

    Shoddy journalism should lead to regret, Woodward. Get over it.

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
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