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. Jeff Cox

    So what? There's way too many reporters that don't regret what they do with their careless reporting. The guy's a legend in his own mind!

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  2. korkea aika

    Joey you said it right! In my book, Obama has all the right in the world to "MOVE THE GOALPOSTS" if he so chooses. He won the election fair and square, has a majority of the american people behind his proposals (sequester and others), and if he suggested otherwise in 2012, well that's just too bad. Repubs should have jumped on a deal then. The upper hand has shifted toward the President, and he should use it to close loopholes for oil companies and hedge fund managers, not close down schools and furlow teachers. You Go Obama!

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  3. Joe Clark

    The last thing the President wants to hear is that he is the biggest problem we have in this nation especially coming from a man who knows what he is talking about like Bob Woodward. Lock your doors at night Mr. Woodward!

    February 28, 2013 11:10 am at 11:10 am |
  4. BG

    "The fundamental question here the president has to decide – does he wanna be president of a political party or does he want to be president of the United States?" House Speaker John Boehner asked at a Tuesday news conference. "It is time for leadership."

    Says the man who has done nothing but contradict anything the president says or puts forth as a plan, even if it is something the Republicans came up with and Obama says "Hey that's a good idea let's use it." Then it magically doesn't become a good idea right? It's time for Americans to wake up and see who is really holding the country hostage...Boehner and the Republican machine, constantly serving themselves and the wealthy while the middle class just gets the blind eye. And all they have to do is keep blaming the President and Democrats for not acting...gotta love it.

    February 28, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  5. booyahhobama

    lets think about reality here folks, whether it was directed as a threat or not, whether woodward is providing this as such or not, we need to think, anyone in the Obama administration has been probed and knows how to approach a reporter such as Woodward. So either this reporter is a complete imbecile, or this was a threat

    February 28, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  6. freedom

    Bob Woodward has no reason to lie. He helped expose Nixon in Watergate that lead to his impeachment. He is a reporter and calls it like he sees it. Another person, Lanny Davis, who worked for the Clinton Admin. also came forward today and said the White House threatened the Washington Times that they would not have access to the White House if Davis' articles were to appear again. I'm sure they threatened Patraeus too – that's why we haven't heard a word from him since he resigned. He knows everything that went down in Benghazi. The president can't silence American citizens with threats. We have a free country – and we will keep it that way.

    February 28, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  7. Mike500

    Of course Obama was lying when he blamed Republicans. The coverup and attempt to rewrite history was caught by of all people a liberal journalist. Maybe if he didn't keep moving the goal posts there would have been a deal by now.

    February 28, 2013 11:11 am at 11:11 am |
  8. j0k3r

    did anyone do any further research, besides just taking someones word for it?

    February 28, 2013 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  9. Bob Woodward

    I wish Woodward would come clean and give us the name of the author of the threatening email. Was it Sascha or Malia?

    February 28, 2013 11:12 am at 11:12 am |
  10. Alicia

    I fail to see why or how any senior official in the White House could be a "threat" to Woodward. The White House (and it's contents) practice illegalities on a daily basis working for the global banker empire so, they have no feet to stand on.

    February 28, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  11. Patrick Lewis

    So Bob Woodward got a pissy email from an old friend and suddenly it's a political scandal? And no, if this were Bush I wouldn't have thought twice about it either. The Press lately has taken to reporting it's own opinions and conjecture as news. The whitehouse is well within it's rights to tell even a respected journalist that what he's been writing is misleading junk and keeping it up is inadvisable.

    February 28, 2013 11:13 am at 11:13 am |
  12. Archyle

    Th political morass is the blame and fault of both "parties". They play against each other for thier benefit and our detriment, those, like the Joey up there, who talk about blame and finger pointing and in a post where they do exactly that is ludicrous and shows a deep bias towards thier own party. Not one member of our elected government is blameless in this, period.

    February 28, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  13. n222s

    Of course, it is all the Republicans' fault. Blah, blah, racists, blah, blah, evil, blah, blah, ignorant, blah, blah, stupid. That's all that is left in the tank. Going on 5 years of mediocre economy. Republican fault. Middle East in turmoil. Republican fault. Rash on your bum. Republican fault. OMB says ACA will cost 6 trillion, not 800b. Republican fault.

    Obama is President. Dems have the Senate. Dems should get over the fact that Republicans hold 1/3 of the branches and stop whining.

    February 28, 2013 11:14 am at 11:14 am |
  14. Henry

    Sometimes Woodward reminds me of a has-been trying to stir something up to put himself in a lime light that faded long ago. This is one of those times.

    February 28, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  15. Smacky Smooth

    You could NEVER convince me that Bob "oh what a good guy I am" Woodward would have EVER sat through a 30 minute session of yelling. This guy is the uber-peck(er), and that works for him in what he does, but it does make him a nasty man. He is on record as a major critic of the Obama tenure. What a whiner he has become between Nixon and Obama. Really? No one could shut him up, especially the government. He must be ready to release a book and this is part of the publicity tour strategy. Nora Ephron knew what you were, Bobby, and so do the rest of us. How the good and mighty have fallen.

    February 28, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  16. Unbelievable!

    Obama could show up at your neighbor's front door with a dozen thugs and, in plain sight, take your neighbor away to an unknown location, never to be heard from again - and you lemmings would STILL think he's the greatest thing since sliced bread. What the h- is wrong with you people!

    February 28, 2013 11:15 am at 11:15 am |
  17. Indiana Voter

    Funny how all you people on the left praised Woodward when he went after Bush, but now you have turned on him for calling out this President as well.

    February 28, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  18. ztom

    So instead of hearing 2nd hand reports of what was said or sent, why not just show the e-mail in full?

    February 28, 2013 11:16 am at 11:16 am |
  19. Dean

    Welcom to the USSA. This is typical Chicago style politics from the White House. Now they'll try to discredit BW and talk about how irrevelant he is.

    February 28, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  20. Joseph V. George

    Was Woodward this active during the Bush Administration?? I never heard any thing from this guy, perhaps, I may be wrong. A balanced approach Obama is demanding is a national necessity. In this economy you can only cut so much, before we hit recession again. What is Woodward's Problem, is he paying too much tax? He want to sell his damn books and make too much money, tax must be paid on his profit which is only fair. I am tired of hearing about his complaints, like momy, momy, that boy is calling me names!!! Come on!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 28, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  21. Gregory Faith

    Why am I not surprised. Washington is damaged and in total denial.

    February 28, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  22. joe800

    Bob Woodward makes his living bu people telling him things he wouldnt be able to find on his own. If he burns people, they wont talk to him, if people dont trust him they wont talk to him. If he writes politicized Op-Ed's critical of the White House he shouldnt expect access...that's what he will regret....

    February 28, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  23. Woody's Hay

    I'm sure that Woodward has the email with all the veracity as the Rather evidence of Bush "serving his duty" ...

    February 28, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  24. CT871

    Woodward is and remains a self-serving phony!

    February 28, 2013 11:17 am at 11:17 am |
  25. Andrea

    The White House has bashed other media outlets and journalists just recently, I'm not surprised by this.

    February 28, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
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