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. David

    Nothing new here, people in power bullying anyone who opposes them.

    February 28, 2013 07:29 am at 7:29 am |
  2. Anonymous

    This on the same day the President supposedly doesn't know his staff is releasing prisoners, what will it take for the people in America to realize we are watching 100% failed leadership. Obama has no plan or intention to govern.

    February 28, 2013 07:29 am at 7:29 am |
  3. B. Gates

    He just wants some media attention for his upcoming book !!! This man is a sleaze ball and is using the public and media for his own personal gains ... This is NOT watergate , wake up Wood-Rough , and grow up ( Cry Baby).

    February 28, 2013 07:30 am at 7:30 am |
  4. jonaty

    Chicago style politics still practiced at the WH

    February 28, 2013 07:30 am at 7:30 am |
  5. GHS

    Between the articles and TV appearances, it appears that Bob has edged closer to inserting himself into the politics, rather than just reporting on it. It's a dirty dark place to go to on many levels. He needs to come back from the dark-side before he's unable to return.

    February 28, 2013 07:33 am at 7:33 am |
  6. livingston

    You have to love the fact that the reporter that the gop demonized and called a liar and un-American in the 70's is now their oracle of truth in 2013 because he is saying what they want to hear. Before you say, "well, he's telling the truth now" maybe, just maybe this time he's only trying to sell a book and is playing to people who have no need of facts to boost sales.

    February 28, 2013 07:33 am at 7:33 am |
  7. oneyedjack72

    Ah, yes, Chicago politics at its best. Bada-bing, bada-boom, but hey, Mr Prez, Woodward has been threatened by the best of 'em, the press has a bigger baseball bat.

    February 28, 2013 07:33 am at 7:33 am |
  8. Sundara0000

    WH says "Of course no threat was intended". .....Yeah right.

    February 28, 2013 07:35 am at 7:35 am |
  9. Mac

    NOT a threat. He was telling Woodward he would regret taking this stance since its factually incorrect. And Ezra Klein and the rest of the Beltway press have beaten Woodword to a pulp in their assessment of his work. And now Bob wants to spin this like he's being threatened.

    Sorry, Bob. You might have had the scoop of the Century once. But that was last century and now you're just another anachronistic relic of the past.

    February 28, 2013 07:36 am at 7:36 am |
  10. caritas06

    This is a very scary development, involving a noted journalist who has spoken truth to pwer in the past.

    February 28, 2013 07:37 am at 7:37 am |
  11. TheTraveler

    Another fine example of the "hypersensitivity" that seems to pervade anything happening in Washington D.C. these days. I'm sure Mr. Woodward will get some extra mileage out of this to help the sales of his rather lack-luster book.

    February 28, 2013 07:38 am at 7:38 am |
  12. Mark

    Obama is used to steamrolling his uneducated base...he picked on the wrong guy here. Someone w a brain

    February 28, 2013 07:38 am at 7:38 am |
  13. Inge

    Hi Bob. Finally some one speaks up in German "Alle Hochachtung! I was feeling this a long time that anyone who talks against him(obama) gets threaten,thank you Bob for ones one of the Liberal Media tells it as it is ,I just hope you don't apologies' now. The other reporters at your side just liars I don't know how they sleep at night lying to the American people like this and let them in the white House get away with it, Has nothing to do he is black, has to do how he runs this country and why to your college let him do this? Is there no shame no character left in you all.

    February 28, 2013 07:38 am at 7:38 am |
  14. beefromnj

    He's full of crap and he knows it. He knows darn well that was not a threat, just a statement saying that he might be wrong about the sequester that's all, and they say the White House like the presiden't said it himself. Please!

    February 28, 2013 07:39 am at 7:39 am |
  15. GOP = Greed Over People

    Someone if auditioning for a slot as a Fox News contributor.

    February 28, 2013 07:39 am at 7:39 am |
  16. carlos

    Obama is a traitor and the media is also party guilty for covering for him. But America asked for it in the name of free stuff from the future taxpayers. Shame on us!

    February 28, 2013 07:41 am at 7:41 am |
  17. Bobpitt

    I am wondering what was the deal? If a deal was made it should be honored..
    But in the other side what was said to Woodward? If you have accusations put them in front, the notion that I was threatedned but I am not saying sounds fishy to me.. be a man and come and say it..

    February 28, 2013 07:42 am at 7:42 am |
  18. wgf

    Woodward is right that new revenues were not part of the deal Obama made. The deal that was made was for sequester. Now the discussion is how to avoid sequester. This is a new discussion which could result in a new deal. There is no obligation for the new deal to have the same structure as the deal it is trying to replace - that's the whole point of a new deal.

    Woodward himself seems to be becoming increasingly partisan. For a while now he has obviously had an agenda with regards to the Obama adminstration. His appearences on the Fox News Sunday morning show are troubling.

    February 28, 2013 07:42 am at 7:42 am |
  19. hkirwin

    Funny isn't it there is always everyone else's interputation of what Obama says, and then there is his interputation. His is always 180 degree different than everyone else's.

    February 28, 2013 07:42 am at 7:42 am |
  20. Conrad Shull

    The President's ardent (the perfect adjective) supporters simply do not understand that their idol is not really a nice guy. He just plays on on TV.

    February 28, 2013 07:43 am at 7:43 am |
  21. Russ in Md

    I think America is starting to realize and regret what they did to our once great nation in 2008 and 2012. The divider and chief is the biggest con man to ever occupy the White House.

    February 28, 2013 07:44 am at 7:44 am |
  22. james

    I fear Mr. Woodward is getting ready to experience Chicago style politics. Bob is way too old to be going up against these guys. Heaven help him and may God bless his soul.

    February 28, 2013 07:45 am at 7:45 am |
  23. Plantiful

    It would appear that there is a degradation of the American society into a short-sighted Me generation(s). Yes, the rich got rich by either inheritance or by creating some fantastic product or service. However, they are rich also because people are still (somewhat) healthy and educated, and also perhaps still with enough money to buy something. Without these qualities and money, there is no making or buying of anything, and the wealthy would either lose their wealth or just not become wealthy.

    The wealthy should pay geeater taxes, as a percentage of gross income to suppot the society that allowed them to get there. Henry Ford realized that in paying his workers sufficiently to buy the very products they were making. Have we forgotten the other side of economics? With no money to buy anything, nothing is sold and no money is made.

    Our useless Congress is too busy with politics to do any of the People's' business. With conservatives solely focused on their ALEC sponsors and liberals doing whatever they do, the country is slowly decaying. When logic fails and politics prevail, all social structures (families, corporations, societies) come to an end.

    February 28, 2013 07:45 am at 7:45 am |
  24. Jack

    Whether or not he said, they said is not the point! Both agree that there needs to be cuts, loopholes closed and revenues increased. The White has far less reason to politicize the issue, the Tea Party Republican are on the ropes and look very bad in the public's eye. Moderate Republicans are abandoning to the Nolabels movement in doves. If I were the Tea Party Republicans' I'd admit defeat, get the best deal you can and move forward. That is want David Frum said to the conservative said when he was with the Heritage Foundation in 2008 and then was fired for saying it! The Karl Rove's, Sarah Palin's, Michelle Bachman's, Rand Paul have destoryed the Republican Party by making outrageous statements.

    I have switch my support to the Nolabel's group, they want to find common ground, compromise and move forward. They don't have to pass an ideologically pure piece of legislation. Jindal and Christy are right the Republicans' have become the party of the "Dumb" Their leadership has been hijacked by Rush "Over the Cliff" Limbaugh and Sean " Insanity" Hannity! My question not "How Stupid" can you be, it's the 3rd time in 50 years! Don't you ever learn!

    I am a conservative and a pragmatist and just can't believe you've done it again! The Democrats' learn from their mistakes and Republicans mistakes. Where is the logic in being stupid. Whether or not you are right! If are driving down the road in a sports car in your lane and an 18 wheeler truck is taking his half of the road out the middle and if you stubbornly say I am in the right I am not moving, you will lose because there is going to be an accident and the chances you are you would be alive, but you will right! You will "dead" right!

    So, Republicans' do you what to be "dead" right! Or do you what to live to another day! You have a choice and you had better make it very soon! Or you follow Rush Limbaugh right off the "Cliif"!

    February 28, 2013 07:45 am at 7:45 am |
  25. Darwin

    Maybe people will now see how this administration truly is. Worse than Bush, worse than Nixon. Some transparency.

    February 28, 2013 07:48 am at 7:48 am |
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