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. Barton Brown

    I smell another Woodward book on the horizon! After spending the better part of 8 years in bed with GW Bush, Woodward has no idea any more of the difference between truth and his self-serving, self-concocted hallucinations.

    "...voices being raised in their previous conversation?" I think the voices are in Woodward's head, signifying either early-onset dementia, or a perfectly-deserved guilty conscience for being a highly-vocal cheerleader of Bush43's worse-than-pointless war against Iraq and Afghanistan (let's send Karl Rove over there to FINALLY dig up those WMDs - if he can spare the time from re-counting the 2012 election Ohio votes for the 436th time), the only results of which have been Bush43's satisfaction in seeing a so-called "weight miscalculation" cause the head to pop off the guy "who tried to kill my dad," and, so far, 8062 coalition forces casualties, including 6664 American men and women. The entire landmass and mineral wealth of Iraq (oil) and Afghanistan (opium) COMBINED is not worth ONE AMERICAN LIFE.

    Woodward - get thee to a mental health professional.

    February 28, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  2. Deac

    He should know that if you are going to tell the truth you will be crucified by this administration as well as the sheep that follow him

    February 28, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  3. Ed

    Woodward is wrong and he might come to regret publishing his opinion for journalistic reasons, as the White House is only suggesting and as Bob understood all along. Media hype, nothing more. Obama and the democrats have been pushing for a "balanced" approach to deficit reduction (cuts & revenues) since he took office. The GOP refused to budge on taxes, not even 10:1 cuts:revenue was acceptable. The sequester, approved by all, was designed to force a congressional compromise. That failed and the sequester looms. Obama now says he'll replace the sequester with a balanced approach, the path he has been advocating all along, the path that congress could have taken to avoid the sequester. How then has Obama "moved the goal posts"?

    February 28, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  4. HenryB

    Woodward has turned into a sad man. Feels he has to punish back by going public. He is a reporter who has had much worse hurled at him and he reacts like a petulant child. What a complete silly BABY!

    February 28, 2013 11:43 am at 11:43 am |
  5. john1963

    This surprises You?....Look what happened to Dan Rather when he told the facts about George W Bush! It happens, there is no freedom of speech in this country. Never has been, Never will be! It, and some other parts of the constitution, are just a euphanism.

    February 28, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  6. lovespandas

    @Joey – so, Obama can lie and you still want to point YOUR finger at the republicans!

    February 28, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  7. surf for sun

    Way to feed the paranoia machine Woodward. Hope it keeps you topical so you can sell more books.

    February 28, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  8. DougB

    Woodward is a hack. Why doesn't CNN post the actual e-mail. It's out there, on Politico. Woodward has zero credibility.

    February 28, 2013 11:44 am at 11:44 am |
  9. John

    Without seeing the entire email and getting the context for the "you will regret this" part, we only have Woodwards' opinion it was a threat. The writer could have been pointing out that he will regret publishing unsubstantiated information when the facts come out. Though I doubt it since most journalists don't seem to regret anything they publish, including blatant lies.

    As for this administration taking away rights and freedoms or oppressing the people, they didn't have to do that. The Patriot Act already did it. Also where is the protection of rights or the freedom in forcing women to get ultrasounds or banning abortions which is the platform of the Republicans. Basically it seems that having a gun makes you free but being a woman makes you a slave. Oh the hypocrisy.

    February 28, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  10. hih

    Joey do you make this stuff up as you go...This sequester is and was approved by the house the senate and the President with no objections..The president has changed what he wanted in mid negotiations...come on what leadership

    February 28, 2013 11:45 am at 11:45 am |
  11. Beverly

    I, for one, am sick of political posturing, games and blame. Please, please President Obama . . . send me the account books for income and expenditures and I will GLADLY balance the budget for us.

    February 28, 2013 11:46 am at 11:46 am |
  12. Art Joe

    What's this, a supposed duel between the press and the WH? Seriously, O could hand a billion bucks to his best friend and you wouldn't get a raised eyebrow from the so-called free press. Those day's are over.

    February 28, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  13. WakeUpPlze

    Surprise, Surprise. When the Obama and the Dems are called out on what this deal really means...they "threaten" someone. Hmmm...sounds like a Socialist government to me. Cronies.

    February 28, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  14. NRAsucksIt

    Um, didn't the bush admin out a CIA agent? Where was the right wing outrage then kids???? Karl Rove still walks free. It's funny how you shills scream from the tallest mountain when the Obama does ANYTHING yet GWB and big DICK are both walking free war criminals! amazing...

    February 28, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  15. john big

    What ever happened to the guy who used to do the NFL you make the call commecials during games, they need to bring that back big time

    February 28, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  16. JR

    What a whiner. Stirring the pot of discontent to get attention. Guess that is what happens when your hayday has passed.

    February 28, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  17. Barton Brown

    BTW, you could swap THIS BS headline for another in your column of "CNN's REALLY IMPORTANT NEWS STORIES AND UNSUBSTANTIATED GOSSIP":

    "Arias: 'I couldn't keep lies straight'

    just change it to:

    "Woodward: 'I couldn't keep lies straight'

    February 28, 2013 11:47 am at 11:47 am |
  18. LL

    Bob Woodward's sprocket has lost its last screw.

    February 28, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  19. g

    he must have a new book coming out

    February 28, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  20. Another Big Problem

    One of the worst things that is being talked about now is Cuts to Social Security that are being proposed by some in the Senate. These cuts would extend year after year leaving the most vulnerable, the elderly and those who survive on Social Security at a great loss from such cuts they can't afford. The AARP has set up a TOLL-FREE Social Security Hotline to contact your two senators. It is very important to call and tell them Not To Make ANY Cuts to Social Security. 1-800-323-2230. Remember, these are benefits you have worked for all of your life and are most entitled to them now in retirement or when you can't work any more. Let Washington know You Vote and Can't Afford Cuts To Social Security!

    February 28, 2013 11:48 am at 11:48 am |
  21. SeeThruIt2

    For those posters here attacking Woodward's credibility, pay attention to the details. The WH isn't denying that the e-mail said you'll reget this. The WH is saying that it wasn't meant as a threat.

    February 28, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  22. Steve

    Listen every Republican in the House has run on the notion that Washington has a spending problem not a tax problem, they actually are still floating the notion that tax cuts create jobs. The House Republicans has stated they want spending cuts now here's their chance. Could it be that both sides of the isle have been caught up on austerity measures and now they cant get the Sh!t back in the horse. They keep talking about cutting spending but no one wants to cut spending because they don't want to upset their money men.

    February 28, 2013 11:49 am at 11:49 am |
  23. Stormer

    Bob better watch out for a drone attack. He is now considered a domestic terrorist since he spoke out against King Obama. Drones are the new guillotine.

    February 28, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  24. Brian

    I'm all in favor of closing loopholes, but seriously. If the POTUS makes a deal, he should keep his word on it, and get back to closing the loopholes as soon as it's done.

    February 28, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  25. Sam

    It's a natural preocess – you acquire fame, let it go through your head, and then crash. The next stop for Woodward is rehab.

    February 28, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
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