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. Theresa

    I doubt very seriously if anyone actually threatened this guy in email. Why go around saying that someone threatened you if you won't say who made the threat? Maybe they meant that he would soon be proven wrong and will be regretful. That's not a threat. That's an opinion. I used to respect this guy. Now it seems he likes the personal attention his books and articles attract a little too much.

    February 28, 2013 11:25 am at 11:25 am |
  2. CZ

    Now there's your Hope and Change

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  3. deb0155


    He was named – it was Gene Sperling!

    Finally, someone who is not afraid of telling the truth! This is Obama's sequester – he's on videotape saying it. Obama and his puppets are nothing but liars and socialists! And the American people are paying for Obama bringing down the country!

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  4. Brett

    Just more of the same from this inept administration. Anyone that disagrees with them is threatened and labelled "extremist".

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  5. Rain man

    They don't do anything worth while. It's all a game to them, but it's our lives that are ruined. I for one won't vote for anyone who is in congress now. I'll vote for someone new or I won't vote for anyone.

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  6. DarqeSide

    Come on, Woodward. As a 'pundit', making a bad call (what we mortals call being wrong) is part of the game. I'm sure when you're wrong, you 'regret' you opened your mouth.

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  7. Howard

    So in Bob's world you must stick to your original idea regardless of the consequences. In a world where situations never change that would be a perfect approach however I'm not sure who actually lives in that world. It is always the problem that drives the solutions not the other way around. Bob, is obviously looking for another big "scoop" but this just isn't it. Perhaps Bob should look for a "scoop" on why the Senate and House GOP are so suddenly afraid of any proposal that generates revenue from tax code changes when they championed this idea throughout the primaries and the election.

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  8. aaron

    Realistically, why would the White House be concerned about what a journalist writes? Americans are politically polarized, believe anything their chosen party says, and will believe/disbelieve anything else based solely on that. The truth rarely comes into play anymore. Sad for a mostly educated population with a high standard of living, but true. If the White House was worried about journalists telling the truth, they'd have a 24/7 job worrying about Fox News.

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  9. Dean


    Plenty of leadership from the Executive Branch, but no action from the Legislative Brance [i.e. Congress, i.e. Senate and House of Representatives] , Speaker Boehner! What exactly do you folks accomplish, anyway, to earn your paychecks? Stalling and pointing the finger don't count

    Joey – Only action from the Executive Branch is campaigning, deals in the night, threats and payoffs. Typical Chicago politics.

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  10. Gabbo

    The real Barry Obama is exposed by one of his own. Disgusting Barry.

    February 28, 2013 11:26 am at 11:26 am |
  11. Rob

    Woodward must have a new book coming out soon. He's just doing a little early promo squawk.

    February 28, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  12. scooter

    Oh come on Bob this is Washington DC. If you can stand the heat maybe you've lost your mojo.

    February 28, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  13. Beavis

    Pretty sure it was obvious that the executive branch has been attempting ot usurp power for some time.

    February 28, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  14. Casey

    Glad to see the Democrats finally getting a backbone.

    February 28, 2013 11:27 am at 11:27 am |
  15. bracey

    joey did you read the article? looks like the "bully Obama" did not like someone actually telling the truth to the press/ I cannot wait until the Obama memoirs are written and we finally get to see what a true political thug he is

    February 28, 2013 11:28 am at 11:28 am |
  16. obama the fraud

    So Obama gets exposed for the sequester being HIS IDEA and now his fraud group is threatening reporters who tell it like it is?

    Pathetic. Obama is a complete fraud from the same ilk of people suhEc George Bush and his ilk.Right wing extremists blindy followed the fruad George Bush and now left wing extremist bafoons blindy follow Barack Obama. What kind of mentally weak braindead drones follow these people?

    February 28, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  17. calamity jane

    I used to like him but what made him turn into such a whiner? Why can't he talk without whining on like an overtired child?

    February 28, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  18. Dean

    Woodward penned a 2012 book reporting that the idea for the spending cuts, known as the sequester, originated with the White House. It's a claim President Barack Obama originally denied, but the White House has since acknowledged. ...................................Makes a person woder if Obama ever tell the truth. Even when he is caught he still denies.

    February 28, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  19. tafugate

    poor bob woodward. last gasp at attracting attention. time to retire, bob.

    February 28, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  20. Saez

    This can be resolved very easily by reducing the amount of aid money we give to other countries. I just heard this morning on NPR news that Congress approve $60million dollars to give to Seria to help with the Civil War now does that make any sence when this Country is on the brink of disaster with this sequester.

    February 28, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  21. dan

    woodward struggles to stay relevant. Sequester has been a favorite trick of Congress for decades. For the White House to point out the obvious temporary fix in 2011 is different than calling it "their idea". Across the board cuts without revenue increases are a uniquely republican idea and that is what this sequester is. Blaming someone else for their bad idea is also typically Republican. But Woodward went further and condemned the delay deploying the Truman carrier group, replacing his judgement for the Commander in Chief. For someone making a living as a neutral journalist, that should be regretable

    February 28, 2013 11:29 am at 11:29 am |
  22. jon

    This old goofball should just retire. He is now completely irrelevant.

    February 28, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  23. andres

    Hmmmm any president a thug? Nice people don't become presidents. Moving the goal posts, an age old tactic, and with the seemingly idio itic press and public a useful too.

    February 28, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  24. theapatriot

    Well said – Obama kept moving the goal post then expecting Republicans to compromise. You can't compromise when someone has moved your goal post into the other side's infield.

    February 28, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
  25. swenk

    "threatened by White House"... it's the Chicago way... nuff said.

    February 28, 2013 11:30 am at 11:30 am |
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