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. Dinesh

    Bob Woodward has always had a holier than thou attitude since his Watergate reporting days. He needs to get off his high horse and also develop a thicker skin. Politics is a tough business – if he cannot deal with it, he should simply retire.

    February 28, 2013 01:38 am at 1:38 am |
  2. fletc3her

    Is nobody puffing up Woodward's ego?

    February 28, 2013 01:38 am at 1:38 am |
  3. Rachael

    Whatever. This guy is blaming the sequester on the White House and doesn't like that they are mad about that? As a veteran journalist, he should know that all spending bills originate in the House and only the House can solve this mess. Sounds like he is a stooge for the GOP and like the rest of them, trying to convince the public that the President makes spending and revenue decisions when any one who paid attention is jr high civics class knows that is a lie. Out with the GOP in 2014. They are determine to run this country into the ground to please the narrow constituiency. They would not even control the House if they had'nt gerrymandered so many districts in the South and Midwest.

    February 28, 2013 01:41 am at 1:41 am |
  4. Tim

    Just Obama scaring people as he always does.
    He uses fear to rule our Country.

    February 28, 2013 01:42 am at 1:42 am |
  5. Ican Heare

    That comment universally stands as an open-ended threat. I'm surprised they said it to Bob. I guess stress at the White House is about a 9 on the old tension scale.

    February 28, 2013 01:43 am at 1:43 am |
  6. glenn smith

    I will file this article under B.S. Bob Woodward is trying to sensationalize a story out of nothing and Wolf Blitzer gave him the platform to do so. If you can't report news then make something out of nothing or distort it so it means something it really doesn't. This is called is manufactured news, not journalisim. It's just plain unprofessional.

    February 28, 2013 01:43 am at 1:43 am |
  7. Gordyb102

    Woodward needs to have thicker skin since he has been lobbing shots at the WH since Nixon was president. What a cry baby of a reporter.

    February 28, 2013 01:43 am at 1:43 am |
  8. Bob B

    Really Bob, we didn't mean anything bye it, really.

    February 28, 2013 01:47 am at 1:47 am |
  9. Peter J

    I am sure this happens all the time: You want access to White Houe interviews, news conferences, press releases etc., then tell the news as we want to read it. Otherwise, your email may just not be on the invitation and/or distribution lit.

    Hats off to Woodward for telling the truth and ensuring true free speach.

    February 28, 2013 01:49 am at 1:49 am |
  10. Philosin

    Mr. Woodward has a case of lingering craving for the spotlight. Its appalling to see him compromising his journalistic standards that elevated his stature as an investigative journo with the Watergate. Making such bizarre observations of matters of so little consequence is precisely why the media has such a terrible reputation.

    February 28, 2013 01:50 am at 1:50 am |
  11. JGN

    How absurd. The inference is that Bob Woodward is quaking in his boots which I fail to believe. If he wasn't quaking when exposing the Watergate break-ins either he's become a paranoid delusional person in his later years, or he's just trying to muck rake to get attention.

    February 28, 2013 01:55 am at 1:55 am |
  12. duke

    Silence from the Left on this deafening. Try to defend the actions of the White House now. Not only was it Obama's idea to put forth the sequester, but then he lied about it–trying to put it all on the GOP. Now he's threatening the left leaning journalist who dared to write the truth.

    February 28, 2013 01:56 am at 1:56 am |
  13. MrScott

    "Obama, however, has argued for an approach that "balances" spending cuts and tax increases." So the net effect is that there is no cutting of government spending and the government and keep on doing what it is doing. Sooner or later the rich are going to run out of money, find new loop holes, move their money elsewhere, or make their money out of the country (like what some are already doing now).

    February 28, 2013 01:59 am at 1:59 am |
  14. Urbanwoop

    Bob Woodward,

    How about a new book about the fraud obama and who the hell he really is? 042-68-4425, say what??? Who could protect such a fraud? Maybe call the book: "All the puppet's strings"

    the people have lost their government. Maybe that wouldn't be such a bad thing – if only our government would lose us.

    February 28, 2013 02:00 am at 2:00 am |
  15. james

    The threat made to Woodward is similar to others we have heard about from the Obama administration. Intimidation and fear should have no place in our government, particularly as it relates to shuttering the First Amendment of free speech.

    February 28, 2013 02:03 am at 2:03 am |
  16. Daniel

    Wow ..... I guess the administration is out to destroy the whole constitution not just the second. I mean seriously first it was our guns now its our free speech.... I hope everyone is watching cuz soon very soon the country will be nothing like the one we inherited and what will you do when the gov. Says you can't say what you want anymore ????

    February 28, 2013 02:04 am at 2:04 am |
  17. Skarphace

    "Of course no threat was intended."

    Hmmm .. if somebody says to me, "You will regret this", I take that as a threat. In this case, instead of saying, "no threat was intended", they should be explaining what they meant.

    In what way will Woodward regret it? This speaks to the nature and intensity of the statement and could work to difuse the situation. By merely deflecting, it draws attention to the statement instead of working to mitigate it.

    February 28, 2013 02:13 am at 2:13 am |
  18. steve

    doesn't surprie me
    what do you expect from a WH full of thugs!

    February 28, 2013 02:15 am at 2:15 am |
  19. Brian

    That is disturbing, to say the least. No branch of government should be permitted to threaten journalists. This is a shameful act that has no place in a Democracy.

    February 28, 2013 02:29 am at 2:29 am |
  20. eli

    Non event created by Mr.Woodward.

    February 28, 2013 02:29 am at 2:29 am |
  21. Evelyn Connaway

    I certainly hopes that big mouth Woodward does regret all his unfounded remarks – he is as bad as the jerks on Faux news! The rest of the republican politicians will regret their actions one of these days. The poor and middle class will survive as we have always done without. I wonder if the Catholic Church will regret their lies and actions against humanity? I wonder if our judicial system will regret their actions and remarks – especially Scalia with his "racial entitlement" remark!

    February 28, 2013 02:34 am at 2:34 am |
  22. d

    Perhaps the ELITE media will begin to comprehend what many of us saw long ago – why does the Media support Obama who is clearly a threat to the freedom of people here in the USA and potentially around the world? Every action Obama has taken TAKES freedom from Americans....Mr. Woodward, I hope this is your wake up call.

    February 28, 2013 02:39 am at 2:39 am |
  23. SugarKube

    Did shotgun Jo Biden threaten him?

    February 28, 2013 03:15 am at 3:15 am |
  24. Tim Hurley

    So lets get this straight. A reporter who exposed Watergate is threatened by a staff member of the current POTUS for calling them out? I'm surprised CNN has the balls to even report this one. Bravo. For all their talk about "openness" & "transparency" the outfit in power now comes off like elitist bullies. What kind of arrogance made them think Woodward would capitulate?

    February 28, 2013 03:17 am at 3:17 am |
  25. Patriot American

    Bod Woodward said someone from the White house sent him and e-mail stating "you will regret this".

    My guess.....that other communist in the Whitehouse Valerie Jarrett

    February 28, 2013 03:21 am at 3:21 am |
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