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. kevinlyda


    In November 2011, Mitch McConnell said the following about a deal to replace the sequester:

    "This fact was underscored in the final hours of negotiations by their refusal to accept even a basic package of spending cuts and revenue that they had already agreed to during previous debt-limit negotiations—unless they were accompanied by a tax hike on the very people Americans are counting on to create the jobs we desperately need. Not even a proposal to get rid of a tax deduction for corporate jet owners, something Democrats had previously eyed as a major prize, was enough to move them off their puzzling insistence on taxing job creators in the middle of a jobs crisis."

    How is it changing the goal posts *now* if revenue increases were an acknowledged part of the deal by the GOP back in 2011?

    Does Woodward actually understand how journalism works or does he just do stenography for whomever yells in his ear the loudest?

    February 28, 2013 03:23 am at 3:23 am |
  2. Tim Hurley

    So lets get this straight. The same reporter who exposed Watergate gets a threatening call from some elitist bully who conveys a not-so-veiled threat to back down. Well isn't that special? Our current POTUS and his cast of "open" & "transparent" clowns sure do get their thong in a knot when confronted with the truth. Darkness always hates when light shines bright enough to expose questionable motives. We now live in a graceless age where elected fools on both sides of the aisle forget who is working for who. This whole sequester thing is a bunch of smoke and mirrors designed to pit American against American. What a crock. They must think the electorate is really stupid.

    February 28, 2013 03:26 am at 3:26 am |
  3. Belvie douglas

    Woodard has had his 15 minutes of fame ......he should just fade away....

    February 28, 2013 03:29 am at 3:29 am |
  4. Casey Collin

    Much adieu about nothing...Bob's new book!

    February 28, 2013 03:33 am at 3:33 am |
  5. DickPerry

    Bob, don't mess with Oboma. He has the power to kill you and no court has a say about it.

    February 28, 2013 03:36 am at 3:36 am |
  6. djolie

    SOOO funny The liberal press better shape. Bama doesn't like anyone questioning his supreme authority

    February 28, 2013 03:43 am at 3:43 am |
  7. marshill88

    Why did it take more than 4 years for people to realize that Obama lies, and his cronies lie, and so do the rest of the republicans and democrats in DC that are destroying this country with their unbridled relentless corruption

    February 28, 2013 03:43 am at 3:43 am |
  8. marshill88

    Obama lied. Why does this surprise people? surely you didn't believe this narcissistic liar all this time, did you? DC, both republicans and democrats, is a bastion of lies and corruption.

    February 28, 2013 03:44 am at 3:44 am |
  9. com-man-senz

    I could care less who said what, or who came up with the idea. Everyone signed onto the plan. What matters now is the idea of proposing a simple 1 line bill in the house voiding out the sequester. I cannot imagine it taking very long to type it up, puttiing it on the floor for a vote before 3 pm and moving it to the senate so it can get to the presidents desk in time for the weekend. If only the republicans were truly interested in job creation and not unemployment creation.

    February 28, 2013 04:01 am at 4:01 am |
  10. retwqaas

    Maybe next time you will shut up and no your role...

    February 28, 2013 04:02 am at 4:02 am |
  11. Rob

    Never threaten the King. Obama isn't president of America. He is just using the possition to get free golf at yatch clubs. Free to him that is, we still pay for it

    February 28, 2013 04:11 am at 4:11 am |
  12. NonPartisan

    Bob Woodward just lost my respect. He knows good and well that the sequester deal, regardless of who initiated it, was intended not to be kept. It was made to be so unpalatable that the parties would have to renegotiate.

    To suggest now that Obama, in holding out for the renegotiation that all expected, is "moving the goal posts" is disingenuous and not honest journalism.

    February 28, 2013 04:13 am at 4:13 am |
  13. DB

    i think it's time for americans to begin divorcing themselves from a president that is playing an endless game of 'move the goal posts'...it appears that this white house will not be satisfied until every possible dime is spent and nothing is ever cut...

    February 28, 2013 04:13 am at 4:13 am |
  14. W.

    After listening to years of Woodward's extemporaneous hyperbole and feeling that he is entitled to representing a unique branch of government, I think he is leaning a bit on the whining side. Mr. Woodward is starting to slant into retirement and the crankiness of his observations over the last few years are in the same vein as Sen. McCain. There is a time to lay down the effort to change news in the present and consider writing a memoir. He is a fine man who wanders too far in the narcissistic mind of waning journalism. Mr. Woodward's political observations are like too many in Washington that dangle on latent ideologies.

    February 28, 2013 04:16 am at 4:16 am |
  15. walter

    C'mon Bobby don't you know the new liberal mantra – "Though shalt not besmirch our lord and savior."

    February 28, 2013 04:22 am at 4:22 am |
  16. LookAtHim

    Look at the little liar

    February 28, 2013 04:29 am at 4:29 am |
  17. imliflelike

    The Obama White House is the most deceptive bunch of tool bags in recent memory, effortlessly telling blatant lies in order to get elected with no follow through on anything except usurping the Constitution. No, I'm not a Republican, I'm a realist.

    February 28, 2013 04:31 am at 4:31 am |
  18. Enrique

    Our forefathers crafted a document that guaranteed freedom of the press. Apparently that freedom will also be SEQUESTERED!

    February 28, 2013 04:35 am at 4:35 am |
  19. Oscar

    The "sky is falling" on the sequester doesn't resonate much outside the beltway. Three and four per cent cuts are what a families and lots of us with small business have to deal with. Lots of people like myself in the center voted for the President but also voted for a Republican congressman in order to mediate the presidents impulses toward spending and the Republicans impulses toward taxes. IE we empowered the President to lead but lead consensus driven solutions. Congress is taking the blame right now, because congress always takes the blame initially on any issue but that blame will start to move towards the president as the situation matures.
    Returning the president to office and making the administration dictatorial are not the same thing. The obviously need to be both increased tax revenue and some pretty substantial cuts.
    This attack on Woodward speaks of the kind of Hubris one sees right before the fall.

    February 28, 2013 04:36 am at 4:36 am |
  20. Ajax

    Bob Woodward is one of those guys who lives off his reputation which stems from fame garnered through a single event from decades a go. In this case, Watergate. While he is unlikely to ever break a story like that again it seems he has started grasping at straws. In this case, purposely missreading and reporting on his own emails. Very sad.

    February 28, 2013 04:38 am at 4:38 am |
  21. TickedinNY

    I guess now that the election is over, we will see the real Obama administration. Built on fear, threats and intimidation. It's not like the sequester was his idea...or no, wait...

    February 28, 2013 04:44 am at 4:44 am |
  22. TellUsWhatUReallyThink!

    BW is ok with me. I think he holds the office of the President, and the nation's defense, in the same ethereal place that I do. Kinda cool, considering he's been slithering with them as long as he has.
    He ran some at the mouth and the pen this week. Good thing I don't appear on TV, it would be worse!

    February 28, 2013 04:53 am at 4:53 am |
  23. Solomon Walker

    Disrespecting You!
    Members of the Democratic Party, here in the US have threatened members of my family, have stolen property, have threatened others in my community and do so regularly with the backing of the local police only because the president is CEO of the Executive Branch, have and continue to be the most rude individuals I have ever encountered in my life. Few let anyone complete a sentence or debate with proper protocol. Personal attacks dominate their speech to distract the discourse from the political facts to a personal hatred. Like an abusive spouse, this political party has little to go on, so they zero in and target weaknesses in the individual instead of staying focused on the issues. So deeply immature and exceptionally embarrassing. Few cares more about the American people than they do the perception to the world that they care about the American people, with a purpose to retain their incomes only.

    What is shocking is the implicit and unshakeable loyalty that these individuals share in support for Barack Obama as though he makes no errors whatsoever under any circumstances. Truly, this man is their king.

    February 28, 2013 04:56 am at 4:56 am |
  24. Mike

    Wow..... evidently now if you don't fall in line with "The Man," you'll be threatened too. This whole sequester issue is such a joke. Maybe if Obama stopped campaigning and stayed in D.C, the millions he's spent just recently on travel costs could be cut from the budget.

    February 28, 2013 04:56 am at 4:56 am |
  25. Anonymous

    It must be difficult to have the biggest scoop of his career at about age 30 and nothing after so it is understandable
    that he seeks attention. lol

    February 28, 2013 04:57 am at 4:57 am |
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