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. EJV - NY

    Either you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Woodard's critique blaming the president and his admin is misguided and simply harmful to this nation as it continues to smokescreen the important issue: THAT THIS CONGRESS IS AN EMBARASSMENT TO US ALL (and I dont mean the members who try, I mean the leaders of the members who refuse to compromise).

    February 28, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  2. Bill Jenkins

    Hardly threatened, making much ado about nothing.

    February 28, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  3. Zach

    Those who already dislike Obama will immediately believe Woodward and use this as one more thing to scream about.

    Those who like Obama will dismiss this as the actions of an old crackpot who either wants his name in the press again or wants press for his new book.

    Its likely a combination of the two, he probably did get told something by the white house he didn't like, and decided to use it to get some free press.

    However..... not sharing what was actually said and who said it leaves me with a strong feeling of "I don't care". The words "put up or shut up" come to mind.

    February 28, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  4. Abbot

    His arrogance will be his eventual downfall. We wanted him to be a one time prez ( I voted for him in 2008). But it will be great if we can impeach him.

    February 28, 2013 10:55 am at 10:55 am |
  5. us_1776

    Ancient old dinosaur journalist looking for attention.


    February 28, 2013 10:56 am at 10:56 am |
  6. ByeByeUSA

    How many would not be surprised if Mr. Woodward dies mysteriously in the near future?

    The POTUS and his administration are the most incompetent and corrupt of any ever.

    February 28, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  7. Chitown

    Team Obama isn't happy when they can't control the media. Shall we revisit the debates and tally up all the lies? Lies that should have been exposed a long time ago had more media done their jobs like Woodward. I feel like this country has a state run media. MSNBC is just a department of the Obama administration. CNN hovers there but I will give them credit for a slight improvement. They really fell down over the Benghazi scam but in time perhaps they will realize how serious it is to have our own government attempt to cover up a terrorist attack – seems far worse that a simple break-in to me.. You can only get away with that if the media cooperates. Good for Woodward. It does make me wonder how many more have been threatened.

    February 28, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  8. FLADY

    Maybe if 'The Situation Room" would let them sing and dance they would come on the show.

    February 28, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  9. Sam

    Since the days of Watergate, Woodward has acquired a certain complex. This episode makes me think a lot less of Woodward now. Twisting words of an e-mail and creating a public spectackle make look Woodward arrogant and undignified.

    February 28, 2013 10:59 am at 10:59 am |
  10. Joel

    This is the way Hitler started 77 years ago when voices sounded against his policies and the Germans did nothing.

    February 28, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  11. Wr

    Why was Bob surprised? This is how Chicago Barry has always acted.

    February 28, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  12. JV12

    Standard Chicago politics.

    February 28, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  13. pigs_on_the_wing

    This is very freightening. It's what happens in places where neo-communist authoritarian regimes have installed themselves (Venezuela, Argentina). We must be concerned no matter which party you are aligned with.

    February 28, 2013 11:00 am at 11:00 am |
  14. rsdofny

    I am not surprised Sperling is the person.

    February 28, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  15. Ruth

    Sounds like the White House is Bullying him.

    February 28, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  16. Carl

    Woodward is a has been trying to stay relevant after his lucky break with a bunch of squealers during the Nixon Watergate scandal. He's become rich off of it and is time to replenish his coffers. How can a credible reporter use examples for crises that would override any budget discussion to make a point of distinction between what the president says in normal times with what a previous president might not say during a crisis – as he goes on [[Can you imagine Ronald Reagan sitting there and saying, 'Oh, by the way, I can't do this because of some budget document" "Or George W. Bush saying, 'You know, I'm not going to invade Iraq because I can't get the aircraft carriers I need?'" Or even Bill Clinton saying, 'You know, I'm not going to attack Saddam Hussein's intelligence headquarters,' ... because of some budget document?" ]] That is crappy reporting and extremely faulty logic – if not political, which defies logic every time

    February 28, 2013 11:01 am at 11:01 am |
  17. Jack

    I have not been impressed Bob Woodward since the very beginning! He is a sensationalist jonuralist in my opinion

    February 28, 2013 11:02 am at 11:02 am |
  18. Just Saying

    Come on, Mr. Woodward. Let the people see the ENTIRE email and name names. You're supposed to be a Journalist. Why not give us all the information and let us decide if it was a threat or not. If you don't, you just look like a fading old man who is trying to stay relevant!

    February 28, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  19. Grumpster

    Bob...just shut up already. Nobody wants to hear your tripe.

    February 28, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  20. AppalachianMom

    Man Up, Bob and stop acting like a weinie!

    February 28, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  21. Medicine Man

    Shame that Bob can't tell the difference between a prediction and a threat...

    February 28, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  22. getridofobama

    ... I'm confused. Obama takes $30 billion dollar trips all over America to promote his agenda, yet says nothing.
    .... Instead, he finally gets back home to the White House, THEN tells his advisers to tell people to go to A WEB SITE
    ...... to find out what "his" budget plan is.. ?? Next time.. Obama.. stay home, save us all money and just tell us where
    ......... to point our mouse/mice/mices/mouses ... etc..

    February 28, 2013 11:03 am at 11:03 am |
  23. Dave48

    Sounds like the old Soviet union instead of the USA. If our leaders what to turn us into another socialist state with a dictator, then why don't they move to the Soviet union.

    February 28, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  24. James PDX

    Talk about a pointless story. Someone said he would regret saying something BECAUSE IT WAS NOT TRUE. How can you even construe that as a threat? It's quite common for someone to regret saying something that turns out to be incorrect. We've all done it. Somebody please delete this story, then fire the author and see if you can get Woodward axed, too. He may be getting old and a little desperate for attention.

    February 28, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
  25. Jayconrs

    Wow – I guess the big news on the sequester isn't the sequester, but Bob Woodward's quest for a brand/relevancy?

    February 28, 2013 11:04 am at 11:04 am |
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