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. Don

    Joey wrote: Speaker Boehner! What exactly do you folks accomplish, anyway, to earn your paychecks?

    Joey here's one thing I know he did this week and it was a really big issue he brought to the House Floor for a vote. Here it is... Should the NASA Building in California have its name changed to Neil Armstrong. There you have it our tax dollars hard at work in Congress. That vote will surely bring down the deficit!

    February 28, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  2. john

    Control and threats when the media doesn't report on a story the way they want? That is scary. Woodward is fairly liberal too. The press should fight back, it is their obligation to be as unbiased as possible.

    February 28, 2013 11:18 am at 11:18 am |
  3. Smacky Smooth

    Another bitter old white man who wants it all for himself. These days it is a great stretch to keep referring to him as a journalist...he is a non-fiction author. His journalism days are gone.

    February 28, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  4. Rs1201

    I never thought that I'd read that any one of our Presidents would dare threaten the press. Obama and his cronies have crossed a line that is sacred to all Americans. Woodward is an honorable and highly respected journalist who would certainly know when to recognize a threat and when to disregard a meaningless statement. The White House is now busy threatening the press when it doesn't agree with the President's views. Obama is a dangerous man. He thinks of himself as an absolute leader who will threaten anyone disagreeing with him. That's what happens in third world countries. Someone should remind that incompetent community organizer that this is the United States of America and he will not be allowed to do as he pleases...He will follow the US Constitution and the laws of our country...or he will be impeached!

    February 28, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  5. thinkergal

    Woodward needs to grow up! He lost his edginess a long time ago. Better for him to exude stateliness that to try to stay in the journalistic fray.

    February 28, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  6. Paul

    Hmmmm, he would not name him. Suspicious.

    February 28, 2013 11:19 am at 11:19 am |
  7. GSR

    This seems strange, the pope us quitting the same time our losers I mean leaders are giving up and quitting on the country. Same thing with Greece, Italy, Spain, etc. but this time they are just not giving a damn about the country and only their special interest groups that has all their money invested with. They have corporate sponsors and Congress and the house should dress like Nascar drivers and their planes and cars and SUV rides should be covered with their corporate sponsors logos. It's only fair so we know who they represent when voting for them.

    February 28, 2013 11:20 am at 11:20 am |
  8. Woody's Hay

    "You will regret this." is a threat?

    Wow ... pretty low bar there for threats. Apparently much higher of a threat than a noose around a chair, or guns brandished outside a place where a congressman is speaking, or gun sights on the faces of Democrats.

    February 28, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  9. chris

    Joey, what leadership from the white house????? Where ???? all he does is complain about Republicans and try to raise taxes. He has done NOTHING, NOTHING to stop this. Where is his leadership??????? When has he EVER reached accross the aisle?????

    February 28, 2013 11:21 am at 11:21 am |
  10. mike

    obama and nixon sitting in a tree...

    February 28, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  11. WatcherWaiter

    Woodward is a senile coot.

    February 28, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  12. Jay in NC

    The White House is ran by Chicago gangstas. Woodward is a capable, honest reporter. Imagine what Obama says to the other reporters.

    February 28, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  13. Jcarw

    What a sad situation! I am so glad I am moving back to New Zealand this year!

    February 28, 2013 11:22 am at 11:22 am |
  14. James

    Woodward is a Champion in Journalism... Finally someone that just REPORTS WHAT HAPPENED AND NOTHING MORE! Bravo to journalist that can stand up to this White House that thinks it can put and storyline it chooses and the people will follow... Wake Up America Obama is not what he seems, He is a President with NO Vision or Strategy to be President of the United States... We are a rudderless nation with him at the helm and its time journalist start doing their job like Woodward!

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |

    Let the dictatorship begin. I thought the worst would be behind us in this new year, that Obama would finally see that his policy was not balanced and would drift into matching free market job programs that would not increase the debt. I cannot imagine what is going on in the White House, and it seems the White House doesn't either.

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  16. Terry

    Always threatening and punitive, that's bo.

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  17. n222s

    Nobody really believes the media has been hard on this President. Nobody makes that argument. However, there is an inherent danger in not holding him more to account.

    Have we ever in the world been duped by leaders who have said one thing and done another. This isn't an attack on Obama. It is an attack on ALL politicians of all parties. You know why they are corrupt? Because we let them get away with it! And when the press goes light on certain politicians because they want them to succeed, what do you think some politicians will do with the power that gives them. NOT necessarily Obama. But can any of us be 100% of his honesty or any other simply because he has a D next to his name or another has an R next to theirs? They are politicians, including Obama, for crying out loud!

    When they begin to fear stepping out of line because we will make them pay at the ballot box or in the court room is when things will change. And since most of us don't have a personal relationship with a politician we are forced to receive our information from news sources. If we can't be sure of their honesty how can we be sure the politicians of all parties are up to no good?

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  18. PJ

    Spare us, Bob. You seem to be smoking McCain's bad bags – A VAST AND UNENDING CONSPIRACY!!!!! Give it a rest. You've won your "Trump Award", Seth MacFarlane did a great number called "I Saw Your Tiny Testes". Now go home and fap on the Pentagon Papers...

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  19. B

    Libs house of cards is starting to crumble.

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  20. Andrew McCauley

    That's disheartening.

    February 28, 2013 11:24 am at 11:24 am |
  21. zed

    please, just shut down the goverment for a few years. im tapped out and worn out.

    February 28, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  22. Herbal Tea Party

    Woodward WAS a decent reporter. Unfortunately with the passing of time he has become somewhat irrelevant. His sometimes desperate attempt to stay in the public political forum causes him to stretch a little reality at times.

    February 28, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  23. Tom

    So a Democrat is now calling out the President and WH. And they get threatened? The true politics of the Obama presidency are coming to light an it's not looking good. So much for leadership.

    February 28, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  24. Padraig

    People who think the Executive branch is leading are dilussional. They cannot and will not recognize the fact that both parties have failed in resolving this crisis. The President does not have a clear agenda as Mr. Woodward has written because it constantly changes. The Congress does not have a plan either.

    In the end that is okay, neither are worth a crap.

    February 28, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  25. cyberactor

    There was no "threat." Woodward is acting like a huge baby. If you examine the e-mail exchance, Woodward even writes BACK and is polite and genial to the guy who is supposedly "threatening" him. So when is a journalist going to confront Woodward with his ridiculous exaggeration?

    February 28, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
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