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. lwburwell

    You have the White House openly threatening a journalist for saying something they did not like. For you Obama voters: is this what you voted for? I thought you Democrats hated bullies, and now you have re-elected the biggest bully sinced LBJ. Do any of you regret your vote now? What more do you need to see to know that this is the worst President in history? GWB would have never done this, nor did he sell access to the White House like Obama is now doing. And GWB would definitely not simply go upstairs and ignore the entire situation while one of his ambassadors was about to be killed.

    February 28, 2013 12:21 am at 12:21 am |
  2. Martyr

    I like his answer, He reported the truth and that made them angry enough to threaten him.

    B r a v o FEW reporters report the news instead of warping it.... CNN and FOX

    February 28, 2013 12:21 am at 12:21 am |
  3. John/kc

    What is threatening about telling someone that they would regret what they said or did? I guess it isn't politically correct!

    February 28, 2013 12:21 am at 12:21 am |
  4. sm

    Journalists creating stories about themselves?

    February 28, 2013 12:21 am at 12:21 am |
  5. laodegan

    Obama politics. Smile for the camera and threaten anyone who gets in your way.

    February 28, 2013 12:22 am at 12:22 am |
  6. LauriM

    It was obvious to me that the "you'll regret it" reference wasn't a threat but someone simply saying that he would regret being inaccurate as a reporter because he presumably wants to be accurate. Woodward obviously wants some attention to imply it was anything more than that. His interview with Wolf Blitzer made him sound a little senile in my opinion. When Blitzer pointed out that the sequester only says it must reduce the deficit and doesn't say anything about how that must be done, Woodward still insisted it said something about that it can't include revenue. Why in the world would Obama EVER agree to a deal that didn't include some kind of revenue when that's all he's been talking about and he has public support for it? I think Woodward doesn't understand the difference between the sequester, which was never meant to actually happen, and the steps that are supposed to take place to avoid enacting sequester. The avoidance plan ALWAYS had closing tax loopholes on the table.

    February 28, 2013 12:22 am at 12:22 am |
  7. dave white

    Big deal, come on man, the whitehouse makes these kinds of threats to control main stream media each and every day. We all know that!

    February 28, 2013 12:23 am at 12:23 am |
  8. Ken

    I'm stone-cold democrat, but if this is true, I'm going to be very disappointed in the White House.

    February 28, 2013 12:23 am at 12:23 am |
  9. aztech

    Bob's doing the rounds promoting his new book right? Someone's stuck in the 70's maybe?

    February 28, 2013 12:23 am at 12:23 am |
  10. JMan

    OOOOPPPSSS Thugs @ white house.

    February 28, 2013 12:23 am at 12:23 am |
  11. Tammy Lozano

    Woodward trying to shift the focus off of the looming "Republican cuts" the cuts to law enforcement, military, education, teachers, border protection ect. All because certain repubs dont want to close tax loopholes for the wealthy and their ignorance about signing ol Grovers vow to never raise taxes on the wealthy. Cant wait to mid term..

    February 28, 2013 12:24 am at 12:24 am |
  12. John V

    This is news? Isn't it common knowledge this guy is back in office b/c he streams in aliens from the border and buses in those getting the check he hands out?

    February 28, 2013 12:25 am at 12:25 am |
  13. Jack Be Humble

    It is fair to say that Obama will not be winning re-election in 2016 :). As to what is going to happen on Friday, we will have to wait and see.

    February 28, 2013 12:25 am at 12:25 am |
  14. mr.coney

    Everyday I am regreting my vote, this is the typr of gov. You see from third world dictatorship.

    February 28, 2013 12:27 am at 12:27 am |
  15. tron

    wow, the unraveling of the 2nd term is beginning a LOT quicker than i anticipated.
    Additionally, Obama is the most thin-skinned "leader" this country has ever had. Pulling a ship from the gulf and releasing illegal aliens because of "budgetary concerns" really, truly shows what kind of man this is. His only concern is political revenge. His concern is not with this great nation. I am just surprised that its all come to a head so quickly into the 2nd term.

    February 28, 2013 12:27 am at 12:27 am |
  16. Steve

    People are worried about nickel and dime stories? The world has big problem here with debt.

    February 28, 2013 12:28 am at 12:28 am |
  17. Clueless Prez

    Doesn't suppress me. The left will say he is losing it.

    February 28, 2013 12:28 am at 12:28 am |
  18. ALAN

    Ha Ha The truth finally comes out about the "real" White House and the people who work in it. Obama-wama has said nothing but lies since 2008. His good looks and personality (like Bill Clint-ton) are the only thing going fro him and the dumb people believe him Ha ha Wait until the Obama-care kicks in and the see what happens to your health insurance, your job and your pay cut.

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

    This is very troubling. The Obama administration is bullying reporters rather than debating the facts in a rational way. This may be how problems get solved in Russia and Venezuela, but I certainly hope it won't become commonplace in America.

    February 28, 2013 12:29 am at 12:29 am |
  20. sally

    Poor Woodward, he spends all his time trying to be relevant again. Most people in the country today weren't even born when the Watergate happened. Please, Bob, don't insult our intelligence with your attention-getting antics! Woodward feels threatened. Wow! I wonder what he would do if someone really threatened him

    February 28, 2013 12:29 am at 12:29 am |
  21. Milo

    They manipulated the process to get the GOP to cave on taxes under the promise that spending cuts would follow, but now are refusing to negotiate spending cuts without further tax increases, thus holding the country hostage to score more political points. It's all about buying off masses of voters for the next election cycle. It's what Karl Marx predicted would happen to capitalist societies...eventually enough people will become convinced to vote themselves money from the treasury that they didn't earn and the system will cave in on itself. Notice how the 2.2 billion dollars in free cell phones isn't being cut. They aren't going to cut off the hands that vote for them. All about handing the money you and I work for to key demographics that will return the favor on election day.

    February 28, 2013 12:29 am at 12:29 am |
  22. anon

    Woodward is one of the few reporters left with the chutzpah to cover the regime as it should be covered– critically and without the sycophantic perspective of the big money media networks. The two party system is broken and the current cohort represents the beginning of a wave of despots if the media and people do not awaken to the coercion, threats, and outright lies being broadcast from PA Ave... assassination... drone attacks on citizens abroad without trials... wiretapping and cyber attacks on citizens... this does not end well regardless of the man's complexion.

    February 28, 2013 12:29 am at 12:29 am |
  23. davecu

    Does this mean Barry lied?
    I'm stunned and amazed!

    Well, not really.

    February 28, 2013 12:31 am at 12:31 am |
  24. Penny Wright

    Woodward is just ginning up publicity for his books.

    February 28, 2013 12:31 am at 12:31 am |
  25. Joe the plumber

    the centralization of power in the executive branch that began with George Bush and has continued with Obama is incredibly troubling

    February 28, 2013 12:31 am at 12:31 am |
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