February 27th, 2013
09:24 PM ET
2 years 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. Dylan

    I guess we're going back to the Nixon days if the White House is going to start threatening reporters....

    February 28, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  2. Did you see the emails?

    even the right wingers realize that woodward needs a fainting couch, stat. LMAORONTF

    February 28, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  3. vad

    Amazing article. You know, so many are so quick just to blame the Republicans. I understand why they don't want to raise taxes. I believe, as do many others that the more money brought in, the more waste there is going to be. Let's say they all agree to raise taxes on the wealthy and raise 500 billion more every year. What assurance do we have that the money is going toward deficit reduction? What is going to keep all the greedy Democrats from earmarking the bill and diverting this money toward other programs thus insuring we will be in this situation again? My problem with raising taxes is that it will never be enough.

    February 28, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  4. DinINdy

    Irrelevant geezer attempts to inject himself into hot topic. Sad. Nothing to see here, move along.

    February 28, 2013 11:31 am at 11:31 am |
  5. Norm

    Woodward is just looking for a sensational story to brighten up his fading career
    The White House basically said don't print your story because it's wrong and you will end up looking like a fool.
    So now that he can no longer print that story, he comes up with this one and still looks like a fool.
    I think it might be time for you to retire Bobby..

    February 28, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  6. C. Smith

    "You will regret doing this" is par for the course for this administration's handling of the media. They want the media eating out of the palms of their hands, and WILL cut off anyone who doesn't play their game.

    February 28, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  7. Tony

    Well well, typical "Chicago Politics." Guess what, Obama: TURNABOUT is FAIR PLAY. Didn't expect THIS, did you? If I were Bob Woodward, I'd start NAMING NAMES, getting *very specific*, etc.

    I don't think Obama EVER thought this would happen–BRIGHT move on Mr. Woodward's part! BRAVO!!

    February 28, 2013 11:32 am at 11:32 am |
  8. freedom

    @Splinter48708
    Right on!!! Get with it, journalists – do your jobs!!

    February 28, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  9. John

    You think that's a threat? Wow, you guys had no idea what a real threat is. I've told close friends that were about to make a mistake, "man, you're going to regret that." Was that a threat? Hardly. Get over yourselves.

    February 28, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  10. j

    Maybe the W.H. should be sent to prison for threatening poor Mr Woodruf Ha

    February 28, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  11. Anonymous

    Someone YELLING at the POTUS this way would be NEWS !!

    Bob Woodward being YELLED at, should not be Headline News!!

    Our poor country has "Jumped The Shark"!!

    February 28, 2013 11:33 am at 11:33 am |
  12. Laura

    Thank you Mr. Woodward! Finally!

    February 28, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  13. Obama

    First Obama tells congress to cut 1.2 Trillion or he will veto any attempt to take away from his 850 Billion sequestration. Imagine the squealing that would be going on if congress had done that.

    February 28, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  14. Anonymous

    Heres the full email, what a joke to take this out of context. There is no threat:

    From Gene Sperling to Bob Woodward on Feb. 22, 2013

    Bob:

    I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall — but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.

    But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus 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 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. It was an accepted part of the understanding — from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios — but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)

    I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.

    My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.

    Gene

    February 28, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  15. Philip Williams

    I can't believe that the majority in this country put these people right back into the Whitehouse and Congress. As far as I am concerned, they are all getting what they wanted. A president that is trying to ruin our country and a congress that has to play games instead of "serving the people" they only serve themselves. Boehner keeps calling for "leadership". Well, what about you, Mr. Boehner. Aren't you the speaker of the House? Why don't YOU provide the leadership and turn this around with your cronies in Washington? I guess it is rough though when members of your own party love to side with President Obama on many issues. Stop pointing fingers and do your job or resign. As for the Democrats, I can only say that you people are trying to push things down our throats that are counter to the Constitution, which you took an oath to defend and uphold. People didn't send you to Congress to change what has worked for over 200 years and your spending and taxing has put this country where it is today. There should be a law that when our Congress and Senate don't do the will of the people, then the entire congress should be FIRED, and new members, people who aren't worth millions of dollars should be installed. You people are too money hungry.

    February 28, 2013 11:34 am at 11:34 am |
  16. Belseth

    I practically grew up on Bob Woodward but these days he just comes off as desperate for headlines to stay relevant. He keeps stirring the muck until he get a rise out of some one and that becomes the sales pitch for his new book. Time to retire before you become sad and pathetic if it isn't already too late.

    February 28, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  17. DinINdy

    I'll believe there were threats when the email is released, until then this is Woodward whoring for the limelight AGAIN. Bernstein was the brains of that outfit.

    February 28, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  18. Dave

    You media reporters better all fall in line and not rock the boat, or we WILL make your career going forward difficult – DNC.

    February 28, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  19. Gina

    It doesn't matter what Woodward says – who cares where the "sequester" originated from! Boehner got 98% of what he wanted... republicans lined up to vote for it.. SHARED CATASTROPHY. Now – who needs to get to work and write the bill – it's the HOUSE – not the president. It appears to me the longer this goes on that the republicans do not want to do anything because they are still trying to discredit this president – such hatred in a time of need for adult behavior..

    February 28, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  20. Lester Polyester

    Liberals in 1973: Bob Woodward has saved us from evil Nixon! Bob Woodward is a hero!

    Liberals in 2013: Bob Woodward is senile. Bob Woodward seeks attention. Bob Woodward is irrelevant.

    February 28, 2013 11:35 am at 11:35 am |
  21. Anonymous

    Threatened my butt.

    February 28, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  22. roggy65

    I wonder why most of the mainstream media keeps reporting that the Republicans are to blame if the sequestor kicks in, when it was actually team Obama who made them. What happened to objectivity ny the media?

    February 28, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  23. california99

    B. Woodward.....You've had your fame in the 70's with Nixon....If you need the limelight again......look yourself in the mirror! shine the light on YOU!

    February 28, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  24. James

    Obama lacks leadership skills, always has, always will. His only fallback is to bully other statesmen and pander to the American people by spewing lies and deliberate misrepresentation of facts.

    When was the last time Obama made the trip to the hill? If this is such a big deal you would think he would be up there all the time meeting with congress

    Congress I doing its job of being a check & balance. Obama has horrible policies and they are there to ensure those don't make it into our laws.

    February 28, 2013 11:36 am at 11:36 am |
  25. Joe Palooka

    Bob Woodward has always had a sterling reputation as a fair man. To me the WH threatening him sends me more bad vibes from this Administration of NO COUNTS!

    February 28, 2013 11:37 am at 11:37 am |
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