February 27th, 2013
09:24 PM ET
10 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.

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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. Sassafrasnewport

    Woodward is a whining crying shill. Maybe Boehner will loan him a Kleenex

    February 27, 2013 09:29 pm at 9:29 pm |
  2. MaryM

    Lets see the email Bob. Post it on CNN

    February 27, 2013 09:34 pm at 9:34 pm |
  3. E. Mc Kenna

    If this blows up, how long will it take for Woodward to be branded a racist in the way the Clinton's were during the first campaign?

    February 27, 2013 09:39 pm at 9:39 pm |
  4. Dave77

    Bob Woodward sound more like Dick Morris everyday! Are they related in any way?

    February 27, 2013 09:41 pm at 9:41 pm |
  5. Valerie Jarrett

    Why did Valerie Jarrett THREATEN Bob Woodward?

    February 27, 2013 09:43 pm at 9:43 pm |
  6. works4me

    "an e-mail from a senior administration official – who he would not name – "
    If you're going to say it... than say it, you genius.

    February 27, 2013 09:45 pm at 9:45 pm |
  7. Vernon

    Woodward should now understand the true nature of the fascist thug Obama and the Democrats. Maybe there is hope the other "journalists" will also wake up and report the truth rather than the Obama lies and propaganda.

    February 27, 2013 09:48 pm at 9:48 pm |
  8. jack878

    Is the press just now starting to realize that a Chicago thug has been in the White House for 4 years. Obama's legacy will be that he is the biggest liar to live at 1600 Penn Ave.

    February 27, 2013 09:50 pm at 9:50 pm |
  9. Tom

    Dude, Obama has drones with missiles. If you were really being threatened, I think you would know it by now.

    February 27, 2013 09:54 pm at 9:54 pm |
  10. lac

    I think it's perfectly OK for the WH to 'move the goal posts'......seeing as how the Republicans have relocated the game to another stadium...another city....another state....another league!
    I sincerely doubt it was a 'senior administration official' who issued the warning........maybe Deep Throat?

    February 27, 2013 09:55 pm at 9:55 pm |
  11. bman

    The republican mantra of cuts, is all fine and dandy, but we're not trying to achieve oneness with the spiritual Om here. I don't know what they slipped Woodward, but he's off his rocker. The american people don't care about political posturing. They did vote for tax hikes on the rich. That much is evident. Any other discussion is moot. Tax the rich and cut the drama.

    February 27, 2013 09:56 pm at 9:56 pm |
  12. JD

    The White House threatening reporters....When exactly did we become Cuba?

    February 27, 2013 09:56 pm at 9:56 pm |
  13. The Dude

    Poor Woodward, trying to be relevant one last time in his extreme age. He should retire with some dignity.

    February 27, 2013 10:00 pm at 10:00 pm |
  14. S.B. Stein E.B. NJ

    No one likes to be told that they did something wrong or contradicted. Woodward should know that by now. If it wasn't the president wasn't connected.

    February 27, 2013 10:01 pm at 10:01 pm |
  15. BobFromPA

    MR. Woodward please reveal who emailed you this threat because a FREE PRESS is a corner stone of our Democracy and this person should be held accountable for their words. I voted for Mr. Obama to be President not a KING!

    February 27, 2013 10:02 pm at 10:02 pm |
  16. ArtVandelay

    Wow.... Sounds like Obama and his administration is losing it.

    February 27, 2013 10:06 pm at 10:06 pm |
  17. Larry

    Woodward needs to identify the alleged official or shut his trap.

    February 27, 2013 10:06 pm at 10:06 pm |
  18. Mojo

    Woodward is getting old and wants back in the limelight. That said, I wish the WH would start to get heavy handed with some the Republican extremists who are hold America hostage. Start by calling out individuals by name and going after them in their districts. We need these idiots out of office in 2014.

    February 27, 2013 10:12 pm at 10:12 pm |
  19. Pat in IL

    Woodward has been getting weirder the past few years. This time he is going way over the edge.

    February 27, 2013 10:14 pm at 10:14 pm |
  20. George

    "Let's hope it's not the strategy".....Really? LOL I'd look both ways twice crossing the street Bob.

    February 27, 2013 10:16 pm at 10:16 pm |
  21. JJ

    The goal posts were moved on November 6 by the voters. Like it or not, that is the simple truth, Mr. Woodward.

    February 27, 2013 10:16 pm at 10:16 pm |
  22. b

    shhh. that darn racist bob woodword should keep his mouth shut. cnn you are treasonous.

    February 27, 2013 10:19 pm at 10:19 pm |
  23. JamesFoley

    On the one hand Woodward is correct. It's not like he's saying things changed as a matter of legality,and on the other he's also correct that it's not a big deal; so, why write about it? My opinion sometimes changes with new information; so, why can't the presidents? A senior white house official observes that Woodward will regret something... well, will he? Is an observation the same as a warning/threat/accusation? How much of that is Woodward's natural tendency to enflame his readers?

    February 27, 2013 10:20 pm at 10:20 pm |
  24. Evergreen

    Even if this idea originated with the White House, everyone agrees that the cuts will hurt the economy. Should'nt Congress work to fix it rather than sitting back waiting for the damage to occur. They can always point their finger and say the averted damage that the President's decision could have caused. That's fair. Otherwise, to sit back and do nothing puts the blame back on Congress.

    February 27, 2013 10:21 pm at 10:21 pm |
  25. littlelizard

    Would be alot more believable if he would name who sent it. Until then this is nothing more than a pathetic attempt to promote his book sales.

    February 27, 2013 10:24 pm at 10:24 pm |
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