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. Dan Crawford

    They've gotten a free ride from the media since day one....about time someone stood up to them. Check out the careful editing done this week to Michelle's incorrect comments on firearms-instead of pointing out the mistakes, they were "edited for time".

    February 28, 2013 07:48 am at 7:48 am |
  2. June

    Wake Up America! This is serious! The White House is threatening news reporters who publish unfavorable, truthful comments that are not approved by them. Controlling the media is a cornstone of communism.

    February 28, 2013 07:49 am at 7:49 am |
  3. Joe

    Truth hurts, eh Mr. President?

    February 28, 2013 07:50 am at 7:50 am |
  4. Scott in Michigan

    Stunner. The Obama administration trying to control the press? NO – that WOULD NEVER happen! Our President is a slimy liar, snowing everybody who blindly follows him – including most in the press. Thank you Bob for showing the truth behind this sham of an administration.

    February 28, 2013 07:50 am at 7:50 am |
  5. Bob_lawbla

    Why am I not surprised? Those who voted for a delegator are finally getting what they wanted.

    February 28, 2013 07:50 am at 7:50 am |
  6. michele

    In an ideal world a politician can create a plan and carry it out exactly as outlined. We do not live in a ideal world. Therefore we cut and paste in an effort to find something that is acceptable to the majority. The bottom line is that there are certain Republicans and Democratics who are functioning with a different agenda: they have no interest for the good of the american people, their concern and interest is confined to that of their supporters and their party. There are times when you must see the bigger picture and that time is now. Economically speaking, we are facing a world wide depression. We must make serious cuts and restructing if we as a nation are to thrive and not merely survive. Playing party favorites is dangerous for us all.

    February 28, 2013 07:51 am at 7:51 am |
  7. LadyT

    What you have here is a has been who is not able to milk out any real stories for cash. Every con that tries to attack this adminstration fail miserably. This administration is anointed and so few so call christian are too cowardice to say so.

    February 28, 2013 07:51 am at 7:51 am |
  8. Puhleeze

    Bob Woodward is a big crybaby. He's seen his political relevance dwindle since he was the darling of Watergate-era liberals, and his latest whining is just a ploy for publicity and to sell his really boring book. Move on, Bob. Nobody cares what you think anymore, and you blew this way out of proportion just to get your mug on the news.

    February 28, 2013 07:52 am at 7:52 am |
  9. Keane

    More than likely the WH was advising Mr. Woodward that his negative focus (books and articles) on President Obama would result in Mr. Woodward becoming "irrelevant" in his field.

    February 28, 2013 07:52 am at 7:52 am |
  10. Kelly51

    Is this Chicago mentality? or thuggery? There thousands and thousands of Americans that will regret this and regret voting Obama back into the WH.

    February 28, 2013 07:53 am at 7:53 am |
  11. not in my house

    no surprise bob.. the question becomes how soon does the whitehouse start doing that same thing to the rest of taxpayers for speaking out?

    February 28, 2013 07:53 am at 7:53 am |
  12. Nametim tuttle

    Once again ole Bob Woodward has gotten his name and face to center stage....i would imagine Bob is pretty happy he doesnt have to make any real decisions that affect our nation– and most importantly the least fortunate in our country....its not about balance Bob its about keeping your name in the lights at any cost.....shine on you crazy diamond...

    February 28, 2013 07:56 am at 7:56 am |
  13. Grumpy2012

    Woodward was the liberals darling when he accurately reported on Nixon and Watergate.
    Now, using the same journalistic integrity he used in the 70's, he accurately reports on the Obama administration.

    That earned him the top spot on "Obama's Enemy List"

    February 28, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  14. Name jimi

    Bob lied! Simply and clear.

    February 28, 2013 10:48 am at 10:48 am |
  15. MasterAres

    @llatpoh .. So is Fox News and every other news org. So surprised all media is reporting... Hmmmm?

    February 28, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  16. Jules

    Uh – maybe they said you will regret this because you are incorrect, just like they said. Always ready for the camera, though, aren't you?

    February 28, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  17. TeddyG

    Folks, what you need to understand is the Bob Woodward is a raging narcissist. He loves it when he becomes the story. Move on. There is nothing to learn from this guy.

    February 28, 2013 10:50 am at 10:50 am |
  18. edmundburkeson

    A crack in the white house dam?

    February 28, 2013 10:51 am at 10:51 am |
  19. PatheticCNN

    Now The Question? Are Liberal News Media going to investigate his claim or they are going to Protect White House.

    February 28, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |
  20. Paul

    Woodward is nuts. The context of that e-mail is clear. It wasn't meant as a threat, that I can see. And I'm not particularly fond of the Obama Administration, either. But in this case, Woodward comes across to me as a whiny no-nothing.

    As for the argument that Reagan wouldn't say he couldn't afford to send this carrier to the Persian Gulf or Clinton wouldn't say he couldn't afford Bosnia... yeah, well, how does Woodward suppose we built this debt over the past 30 years? Maybe if Reagan and later presidents had said that, we wouldn't be facing an economic end-game from a country so far down the debt well it can't even hope of ever devising a way out. Maybe journalism majors ought to be required to take a least a couple undergraduate math courses.

    February 28, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  21. Keane

    More than likely, the WH was advising Mr. Woodward that his overly biased reports would result in Mr. Woodward becoming "irrelevant" in his field.

    February 28, 2013 10:53 am at 10:53 am |
  22. Double b

    Poor Bobby feels threatened...what a load of crap

    February 28, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  23. Charles

    Actually the speaker of the house sent tow bills to the Senate. The Senate is the body of Congress which has done nothing. Then the President runs around bad mouthing the GOP like it is all their fault for doing nothing. It is the senate which is holding the Uniteted States Hostage. The Senate is run by the Democrats. So the Democrats do not care about the welfare of the people of this nation. Just the Facts.

    February 28, 2013 10:54 am at 10:54 am |
  24. disqusinator

    was the email sent using the White house email system or a private email account. Using freedom of information act, it would be nice to know what white house official is intimidating a reporter. But, since all of these liberals in power are like bullies on the playground, actual complete cowards, it was probably sent via private email.

    February 28, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  25. steve

    does't surprise me
    WH is nothing but a bunch of thugs
    they lost this one! NEXT

    February 28, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
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