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. John McCain

    Threatening journalists? Woodward is right, it is Mickey Mouse.

    February 28, 2013 06:39 am at 6:39 am |
  2. john ritcher

    You will regret this? Meaning what? The Politburo will come arrest him? What is this Nation coming to?

    February 28, 2013 06:39 am at 6:39 am |
  3. Charles Frith

    Bob Woodward is Office of Naval Intelligence. The DIA ONI largely run WaPo and NYT is CIA. The power elite took down both Nixon and Kennedy. They don't care about the fake left right divide and Bob Woodward is no journalist. He's a spy. Google it.

    February 28, 2013 06:40 am at 6:40 am |
  4. Mike

    Sounds like Mr. Woodward is trying to get himself a time slot on the "fair and balanced" network...

    February 28, 2013 06:40 am at 6:40 am |
  5. Nick

    I will take the word of a journalist who has shown great integrity and accuracy over the years over the word of anyone currently working in this administration. As Mr. Woodward is accurately reporting, the hysteria being preached by the President doesn't line up with facts – like the FAA budget being up 41% since 9/11 while the number of flights is down 27%. Or the fact that we are only cutting the amount of increase in spending, not actual spending. Or that many of these cuts won't even be felt until next year.

    February 28, 2013 06:41 am at 6:41 am |
  6. Seth

    I'm not in the least surprised. This POTUS thinks he is a King. His Administration thinks they are the Crusaders. Liberty and Freedom are nearly dead – and how do a majority of the people respond? Rousing applause!? It amazes me how many people have their heads buried in the sand. This POTUS is the worst in history, yet a slight majority still favor him. It's like there's pixie dust all over him, and the people are fast asleep.

    February 28, 2013 06:41 am at 6:41 am |
  7. Drew

    Hey Bob...He is the President..he wants to move the goal posts..he can and should..since the republiklans have torn down the goal posts...since when did you go from a top rank journalist to a whinning neocon?? Just looking for attention again?? sad...so sad...

    February 28, 2013 06:43 am at 6:43 am |
  8. Traveler

    "It's a claim President Barack Obama originally denied, but the White House has since acknowledged. "

    That means he lied.

    February 28, 2013 06:43 am at 6:43 am |
  9. truetea

    typical chicago thuggery. why am I not surprised?

    February 28, 2013 06:44 am at 6:44 am |
  10. HenryB

    Oh Bob, so they threatened you you. I don't know what he is threatening you with but you are obviously b@tt hurt. Please get over it. Is your decision to go public because you really want to report misbehavior or because you are offended? Get over yourself. Baby!!!

    February 28, 2013 06:44 am at 6:44 am |
  11. J5121

    The righteous indignation from the King of the Democrats. How dare anyone point to their flagrant abuses of power…

    February 28, 2013 06:45 am at 6:45 am |
  12. llatpoh

    The only thing surprising here is that CNN is reporting on this...

    February 28, 2013 06:47 am at 6:47 am |
  13. Jon


    February 28, 2013 06:48 am at 6:48 am |
  14. joey

    Plenty of leadership from the Executive Branch, but no action from the Legislative Brance [i.e. Congress, i.e. Senate and House of Representatives] , Speaker Boehner! What exactly do you folks accomplish, anyway, to earn your paychecks? Stalling and pointing the finger don't count.

    February 28, 2013 06:48 am at 6:48 am |
  15. Namejanek

    Typical Dem bully tactics, the truth hurts. It shows that Obama is do habitual liar.

    February 28, 2013 06:49 am at 6:49 am |
  16. James Cricket

    It's clear that the "president" has no intention of being a man of his word. After all, what does a community organizer know about honor, integrity and leadership? Nothing. And that's why such a large majority of the country voted for him. They share those lack of values.

    February 28, 2013 06:50 am at 6:50 am |
  17. Jim

    He reluctantly admits that a senior official at the White House told him, "You're going to regret this." Yet, even then he defends Obama, suggesting that "If Barack Obama knew that someone was using this tactic ...." Apparently Woodward can't logically accept that, perhaps, Obama specifically ordered his people to "play hardball" and use unsavory tactics. Bob, that IS a VERY real possibility.

    February 28, 2013 06:50 am at 6:50 am |
  18. chet

    Strong armed tactics are nothing new here

    February 28, 2013 06:51 am at 6:51 am |
  19. Sagebrush Shorty

    Is anyone really surprised by this?

    February 28, 2013 06:51 am at 6:51 am |
  20. eddhur

    you cannot run the country on threats and bulling a president cannot throw congress and senate under the bus every time this is not a dictator ship now they are want a state run media

    February 28, 2013 06:52 am at 6:52 am |
  21. Randy

    Taxes were increased just two months ago, enough is enough! It is time to now look at spending. The sad part is that we are talking about a reduction in automatic increases, not a reduction in the previous years budget. In a time when American families are doing more with less, shouldn't we expect our government to do the same.

    February 28, 2013 06:54 am at 6:54 am |
  22. david esmay

    It wasn't a physical threat. After being fact checked, Woodward looks stupid and apparently suffers from sequestration dementia.

    February 28, 2013 06:56 am at 6:56 am |
  23. danceson pedals

    Same old Woodward. We're facing a financial catastrophe, but the story is all about him.

    February 28, 2013 06:56 am at 6:56 am |
  24. Rozzie

    It's just Woodward seeking more glory in "Yenta-Ville!" These journalists have such large egoes that they must sate their pages with controvcersy in order to beat each other with "bombshells!" Get a life – or open up pizza joints!

    February 28, 2013 06:57 am at 6:57 am |
  25. Workhard03

    Just enough already with this White House. Just so sad that America voted this into office for a second term.

    February 28, 2013 06:57 am at 6:57 am |
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