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. Mike

    Think about it people, when the Obama administration begins threatening the liberal media, you KNOW there is a problem.

    February 28, 2013 07:01 am at 7:01 am |
  2. carl wiley

    Woodward has made a living being a drama queen. If Nixon didn't have him shot, I guess he is pretty safe.

    February 28, 2013 07:01 am at 7:01 am |
  3. JustWho

    Woodward is just another word junkie with an ego. Ugh.

    February 28, 2013 07:06 am at 7:06 am |
  4. vp

    "does he wanna be president of a political party or does he want to be president of the United States?"


    After Bush/Cheney?!

    February 28, 2013 07:07 am at 7:07 am |
  5. kellys

    Once again a sensational headline that amounts to very little really. The WH is entitled to an opinion and it sounds like they were saying he would regret it professionally and his journalistic reputation would be affected due to what the WH saw as inaccuracies in his reporting. Its a bold, matter of fact statement, but is that a threat? not in my opinion, I think Woodward is blowing this way out of proportion.

    February 28, 2013 07:08 am at 7:08 am |
  6. waheid

    The accuracy of this story relies on Woodward's credibility and that remains an open question. Whom is to be trusted more: the press or the politicians?

    February 28, 2013 07:08 am at 7:08 am |
  7. Tony

    Is anyone really surprised by the threat? Both sides are to blame and the taxpayers are the ones who suffer!

    February 28, 2013 07:09 am at 7:09 am |
  8. Agenda

    Woodward should cite the source of the threat. It doesn't lend him any credibility to be granting anonymity to a person that threatened him.

    February 28, 2013 07:10 am at 7:10 am |
  9. ed perreault

    He could go down in history as the worst President ever. Will not negotiate, my way or down the highway.

    February 28, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  10. Deb

    the White House should always be transparent. Woodward merely enforced this statement in appropriate ways. And he was threatened for it. For the white House official who cowardly refused to be named, stating "Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate", is a big, fat, ugly lie.
    Time will tell Mr. unknown name coward White House official.

    February 28, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  11. Admiral Ackbar

    Mr Woodward is the most respected man in Washington. I tend toward believing him.

    February 28, 2013 07:12 am at 7:12 am |
  12. Chris

    People will one day hate this President for destroying a united U.S.!

    February 28, 2013 07:17 am at 7:17 am |
  13. Opinion8iit

    A true journalist reports the news without taking sides. Woodward took a side and gave his own opinion. He will regret this, not because of a fictitious threat, but because he has just tarnished his reputation

    February 28, 2013 07:18 am at 7:18 am |
  14. ARob

    It's not surprising that Woodward would make a claim like this, since the only reason anyone knows he exists is because of his investigation of corruption in the White House. But his claims are one-sided and ignore the fact that both sides of the debate have made efforts to "move the goalposts" in order to serve their own interests and impair those of the other team. Republicans have tried to change the sequester to affect the military less and social projects more. Democrats have tried to water down the cuts with more taxes. Both are trying to defeat the original purpose of the sequester: to force cooperation despite selfish and biased partisan agendas.

    February 28, 2013 07:19 am at 7:19 am |
  15. The1calleddoc84@gmail.com

    I'm active duty navy and I cannot tell you how much this affects us and our DOD civilians! It's unreal! Thanks for voting for this guy! We have fought 12 plus years of this work and now are being kicked to the curb! Seriously are budgets are froze and we have not a single penny for anything! We are having to buy our own supplies! Thanks for serving the ones who have served you!

    February 28, 2013 07:20 am at 7:20 am |
  16. ATL Guy

    Seems to me that Mr. Woodward is trying to create a scandal to sell more of his books.

    February 28, 2013 07:20 am at 7:20 am |
  17. J Lander

    Tragically it may be to late for this once great country to recover from the damages this administration has placed upon us.
    Realistically one should ask, if you are unhappy with our Consitution and values, depart,do not impose an ideology on constiutuents who do not believe in your preachings. Leave and set up in a land where your particular values can be instilled. Problem is where will money come from to support entitlements. In addition where would this President be had he not had the opportunity to utilize the privileges extended to him in this country? Talk about gratitude.

    February 28, 2013 07:21 am at 7:21 am |
  18. rudedog

    These type of threats were the norm under the W Bush administration. If memory serves me right, Woodword was threatened with the W administration going after his bosses to fire him.
    Somebody fact check it.

    February 28, 2013 07:23 am at 7:23 am |
  19. Stephen Daugherty

    The sequester was never meant to be the actual approach, but rather a political penalty for failing to come to a compromise, which even in the days of the Supercommittee was expressed by the White House to include tax increases. And really, Obama always said he would do this. Where's the movement on the goalposts?

    February 28, 2013 07:23 am at 7:23 am |
  20. Richard

    Bob Woodward jumped the shark a long time ago and sadly his quest to remain relevant causes him to continue with his sensationalist writing and comments. I am sure he will regret penning that since I would imagine his access to the President and the White House will now be limited. Something any rational person wopuld have known. If you bite the hand that feeds you–you don't get fed.

    February 28, 2013 07:24 am at 7:24 am |
  21. William R. Hill

    Woodward apparently does not understand the democratic process, along with a lot of other people. The president can suggest. He can recommend. He can send proposals to Congress. He can use the "bully pulpit." John Boehner constantly saying "the president needs to lead" is an admission that the House of Representatives can't do its job unless the president tells us what to do. So the president tells them, and they don't do it, or anything else. Congress passes the legislation and is responsible for whatever happens as a result of that legislation. The president doesn't have a vote.

    February 28, 2013 07:24 am at 7:24 am |
  22. franktoobkins

    Nothing shocking here with this White house

    February 28, 2013 07:25 am at 7:25 am |
  23. Reader

    This is outrageous! A new over the top low for the White House. What next, an assignation of Woodward? Someone's head should roll over this and it ought to be whoever threatened Woodward.

    February 28, 2013 07:26 am at 7:26 am |
  24. Sam

    Ether side doesn't care what happens so long as the other looks bad. Oh how far President Obama has fallen- lashing out at moderate reporters.

    I have a crazy idea: how about instead of raising revenue we just cut spending. Maybe as a doctor I should start charging more when I run out of money notepad of spending less. That makes sense to everyone right?

    February 28, 2013 07:26 am at 7:26 am |
  25. billybob

    I can't believe that CNN is actually running this story. They are usually pretty sparse with their criticism of the current administration. It is funny how Obama is touring all across the country to tell people how bad his own idea is, ha ha! Just goes to show that once again he is showing his true colors as a Chicago swindler of the first order who is much more concerned with political maneuvering than he is with actually solving problems. It is my own opinion that this is all a calculated step by the white house to put the squeeze on the economy in order to use it as a wedge issue in the 2014 elections. Furthermore, as he caravans around the country as if he were still running for office, giving speeches about ‘fairness’ and ‘millionaires & billionaires’, he fails to mention that he just got a tax increase on these despised rich people just a matter of weeks ago – something that no one thought possible. Such a tragedy that a man Americans put so much hope into turned out to be such a sleazy partisan. And just a note on the whole ‘fairness’ issue – I do not see the word ‘fair’ in our Constitution, nor our Declaration of Independence. The words I do see, and the ideals this country was founded upon and the ideals that made America the country that it is today, are Freedom and Liberty. The problem is that people now associate the words freedom and liberty with ‘fair’; in fact, nothing can be further from the truth. True freedom and liberty is raw and can be rather nasty at times, because you and you alone are responsible for your choices in life. The brilliance of America is that not only do we allow people to wildly succeed; we also allow them to fail. You cannot have amazing success without also having failure. If you limit failure, you limit success, and create a system of staggering mediocrity. There’s my two cents, now you liberals can start the name calling and personal badgering that is sure to ensue ha ha…

    February 28, 2013 07:27 am at 7:27 am |
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