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. DB

    Does anybody trust the White House anymore? If they do they are fools.

    February 27, 2013 11:21 pm at 11:21 pm |
  2. JL

    Not shocking. A little surprising CNN would report it.

    February 27, 2013 11:22 pm at 11:22 pm |
  3. from bankrupt Illinois

    Welcome to Dirty Chicago Crook County politics Bob. Kudos for your bias in the Media. You finally have figured out how bad these people are in the WH

    February 27, 2013 11:22 pm at 11:22 pm |
  4. Scott

    So obama lies, then relents and says 'okay, it was my idea'... but don't report the truth or you'll regret it!!! Sounds like the obama white house.

    February 27, 2013 11:24 pm at 11:24 pm |
  5. reality check

    Woodward is a fellow liberal but one of the few honest ones. Really disappointed to hear this.

    February 27, 2013 11:24 pm at 11:24 pm |
  6. Charlotte

    "You'll regret this" is a threat? Oh, PUH-LEEZE. It could have been a statement of fact – that Woodward's biased interpretation when proven wrong will further erode his credibility and he will regret having bought into the whole Teabilly line. That's hardly a threat, it's more like a prediction. These racists are forever trying to portray this administration as something sinister and evil, simply because the guy at the helm is not more than 51% white.

    February 27, 2013 11:24 pm at 11:24 pm |
  7. Michelle

    Of course he would not name who – our government is out of CONTROL – they need to cut the budget and get a balanced budget – I am sorry but none of them deserve a dime with their bi-partician antics shame on all of them – time to stand up and get new people in and hold them accountable

    February 27, 2013 11:24 pm at 11:24 pm |
  8. Susie

    The press is now becoming aware of what many of us saw long ago. Obama believes he is beyond reproach and when someone deigns to criticize. his true totalitarian colors are revealed.

    February 27, 2013 11:25 pm at 11:25 pm |
  9. d

    Now, I thought it was only Nixonian republicans who threatened journalists. I'm shocked.

    February 27, 2013 11:25 pm at 11:25 pm |
  10. Javier Narvaez

    You mean to tell me that the Obama administration isn't playing nice? Who would've imagined?! That reputable, veteran reporter is totally lying...

    I think this certifies our Press Freedom ranking of only 32 by Reporters Without Borders.

    February 27, 2013 11:26 pm at 11:26 pm |
  11. JJ

    Well, he deserves to be shut down by Obama and the crew. Woodward is a punk and will always be a puppet for the conservatives!

    February 27, 2013 11:27 pm at 11:27 pm |
  12. Jamie

    So the press has been kissing the feet of Obama for so long, they did not see his real nature. Welcome to the real world.

    February 27, 2013 11:27 pm at 11:27 pm |
  13. Jason

    The White House is obfuscating history and Woodward called them on it. They keep repeating 'We've called for a "balanced" approach all along'. True, but what they leave out, and frankly so do most journalists when interviewing Administration reps, is 'how much of a balance?'. The "moving the goal posts" charge is based in the amount of revenue vs. spending cuts, not the simple fact that there are elements of each.

    February 27, 2013 11:27 pm at 11:27 pm |
  14. Ron

    Bob, I like you and your style but this sounds like a lot to do about nothing.

    February 27, 2013 11:27 pm at 11:27 pm |
  15. teachesmath

    Yet another example of Chicago-style intimidation politics practiced by the current administration. Can't say I'm surprised. Annoyed, but not surprised.

    February 27, 2013 11:28 pm at 11:28 pm |
  16. Jim

    Time for Bob Woodward to check himself into an assisted living facility, due to his increasing levels of senility.

    February 27, 2013 11:28 pm at 11:28 pm |
  17. Humanity4All

    Bob is a good man and good journalist, he does have tendency to get himself stuck. I hope he is not trying to get some gas by exagurating this issue.

    February 27, 2013 11:28 pm at 11:28 pm |
  18. w5cdt

    I draw the line at intimidating the press. Long live the free press. (Except for Faux of course).

    February 27, 2013 11:28 pm at 11:28 pm |
  19. susie

    So where are all the democrats to justify this garbage?

    February 27, 2013 11:29 pm at 11:29 pm |
  20. Robert W. Anderson

    And this has been verified independently by CNN...?

    This isn't a news story. This is Mr. Woodward deciding to engage in defamation without risking a defamation lawsuit.

    February 27, 2013 11:29 pm at 11:29 pm |
  21. Joe

    This is huge, a veteran journalist who brought down a sitting President getting threatened by the Obama administration.

    February 27, 2013 11:29 pm at 11:29 pm |
  22. Peter

    Old men in suits fighting over he said she said while the rest of the country suffers and worries if they will ever have enough money to put food on the table.

    Such is life.

    February 27, 2013 11:30 pm at 11:30 pm |
  23. Mike Chino Hills

    The Obama administration has been blocked, mocked, flocked, etc... The first Black President, and only Half Black has been mocked by the GOP. Do you blame them? Last administration, we went to WAR on false pretenses. Hundreds of thousands died, Billions were spent for what? What a joke. I am a Registered Republican, and haven't voted Republican for the last two elections. The GOP has become a Joke! A Racist, Gun Loving, War Loving Party. I'm out!

    February 27, 2013 11:30 pm at 11:30 pm |
  24. TonyK

    Woodward doesn't seem to get it–the sequester was written into law after the House held Obama hostage with the debt ceiling fiasco. The president can't now just ignore it an go his own way–he and the GOP House and dem Senate signed it into law with the understanding that it would changed later through legislative process. The president has made his plan public,the new House has not (their "plan" is from the previous Congress and is not binding now). This not "shifting the goalposts." That is simply s ridiculous claim.

    February 27, 2013 11:30 pm at 11:30 pm |
  25. Javier Narvaez

    You mean to tell me that the Obama administration isn't playing nice? Who would've imagined?! That reputable, veteran reporter is totally lying...

    I think this certifies our Press Freedom ranking of only 32 by Reporters Without Borders.

    February 27, 2013 11:30 pm at 11:30 pm |
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