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. Online man

    Wow- lot's of defenders of the strong arming by Obama's government. I guess to the maudlin democrats it's like the good old days again: 1933 Germany.

    February 28, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  2. What's next

    Woodward has evolved however I'm struggling to define what's he's morphed into..from premiere investigative journalist to...be announced?

    February 28, 2013 11:50 am at 11:50 am |
  3. jim

    "you will regret this ?" sounds so nixoness

    February 28, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  4. Jon Garner

    Woodward is an empty suit. Who cares who thought of the sequester first? The House needs to step up to the plate. Boehner is a joke. And , by the way, I read the "great" Woodward's book on Bush in a crisis. Why didn't he "sniff" out the outright lies that were being perpetrated at that time by Cheney and bush?? Woodward, as I said, is a joke. For hire. Pay his the money and he'll write anything. What is sad is to see this parody of a news reporter who is still trying to collect on Watergate. he probably hasn't had an original thought in 30 years. Sad, Sad, Sad !! American journalism is a joke!!

    February 28, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  5. Peter

    Go Bob!

    February 28, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  6. mike0404

    I would like to see the entire email, not part of one sentence. If the roles were reversed, Woodward would be furious about being quoted out of context. PUBLISH THE EMAIL!

    February 28, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  7. Jimbone

    One broken system we have here. And no way to fix it without a total takeover by the citizens. Which will never happen. We are screwed.

    February 28, 2013 11:51 am at 11:51 am |
  8. Joe from CT, not Lieberman

    Woodward is still trying to live off his rep from the Watergate days.

    February 28, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  9. Justanothermummy

    No surprise here. But if the Obama administration is calling for additional revenue before accepting any spending cuts, he should be honest with the American people and tell us where they would like that additional revenue to come from and realistically tells us how much money he needs. He should also be reminded that he received additional revenue in passing his "millionaire's tax".
    Frankly, I don't believe Obama wants a deal to avoid sequester. Too many people within his party would rather see defense cuts than reforms in entitlement spending. Too many people within his party would like to see all the Bush tax cuts expire on all income classes rather than cut any spending. If they can get all of that while also blaming Republican then it's a win win for them.

    February 28, 2013 11:52 am at 11:52 am |
  10. Richard Right

    On one side we have a hardnosed reporter/author known for integrity on the other side the White House ,that still hasn't even explained what the President was doing when Americans were being murdered in Benghazi

    February 28, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  11. Linda

    I am so sick of people assuming that Obama is honestly trying to compromise in any way and that the Republicans are doing nothing! The Republicans are always bringing forth new ideas to resolve our problems, only to be ignored by Obama and then being called the "party of no." When will people open their eyes and see Obama's true agenda?

    February 28, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  12. Dan

    Another example of the administration that uses bullying and scare tactics to get their way. Talk facts and they start pointing fingers and name calling. Both sides may play the game but when the president starts every campaign speech (why is he still stumping anyways?!) he notes that it's the democrats that are common sense (yeah if common sense means disregarding both math and psychology) and the republicans are all extremists for continuing to value what made us so great in the early 2000s (yeah we were making more people millionaires than just about any other time, sorry capitalism is cyclical). I'm sorry but continuing to just make the 'wealthy' pay (7/10s of which make less than 1.5 mil meaning they are the working wealthy and by no means the billionaires you conjured up in your imagination) when they have no access to these services and its the average American that uses them is just ludicrous; you buy it, you pay for it. If you cant, then you go without...(not saying let anyone starve, but the cell phones, housing, healthcare, and food all paid for is stupid; work, go back to school while working or just take a long walk off a short pier, just don't sit there and say 'I want that, give it to me!')

    February 28, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  13. lou

    The citizens of our once great nation, the UNited States of America, are just burned out by the fighting between Obama, the Senate and Congress.It seems every other month there's some fiscal crisis that needs to be averted yet, there's a push to send $60 million to Syrian "rebels," whoever they are.

    February 28, 2013 11:53 am at 11:53 am |
  14. SillyT

    my dislike of the president has nothing whatsoever to do with the color of his skin. it has everything to do with the fact that he will go down in history as the largest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.

    February 28, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  15. Dave

    There is a complete LACK of LEADERSHIP from the Executive Branch. Our President (and team) structured the sequester, and signed it. There were such large cuts aimed directly at the military that they thought the Republicans would never let them happen, and CAVE. Ooooops, that appears to be a miscalculation. Then the President doesn't even get truly involved until after the 11th hour (except for flying around the country "blaming" the republicans) He has not been there working as part of the solution.

    February 28, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |

    They will ruin us all-so, go ahead and pick up something to read at the winter reading sale at amazingsalebooks...Thousands of titles at discounted prices.

    February 28, 2013 11:54 am at 11:54 am |
  17. sadlyperturbed

    This is very sad reporting. Here is the ENTIRE email, and Woodward's response. As you can see, there was NO threat whatsoever. And for CNN to report this based on Woodward's word without the entire context of the email is non-professional reporting at it's finest.

    Email from WH staff, Sperling:

    I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall - but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here. But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus 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 ... My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.

    Woodward, who would later profess to be unnerved by Sperling's email, replied very calmly:

    Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice.

    And what is most amazing to me is where I found this information. On Fox. So go figure.

    February 28, 2013 11:55 am at 11:55 am |
  18. mary

    Me thinks Woodward has a future book he was to shill. Once upon a time I had deep respect for Bob Woodward but lost that for him years ago. Go away Bob.

    February 28, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  19. charles bowen

    Bob, Did you let your Alligator Mouth overload your Hummingbird Butt again???? Are you just a whiner or are these sour grapes..Suck it up Bob time to Man-up....like the good old days..... Charles Bowen Solomon Stone

    February 28, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  20. jim morrison

    The White House is filled with thugs like Axelrod, Gibbs, and previously Rahm Emanuel amongst many. Whenever any of them speak and are asked direct questions you can tell they are all lying by their facial expressions. They all look like the cat that ate the bird, what with the SH*T-Eating smirks on their faces. They are very adept at changing the questions into something positive for the President. This was Obamas' biggest mistake, putting all of those clowns in positions of power. Obama will go down in history as one of the worst Presidents ever and it will all be due to listening to those morons

    February 28, 2013 11:56 am at 11:56 am |
  21. Barry G.

    I don't believe that either party has a monopoly on ethics or integrity.

    It seems that the entire political system of the U.S. has become corrupted, and both parties participate in and perpetuate this corrupt system.

    The sins of one party are no better than those of the other.

    February 28, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  22. Bill

    Why is it none of these politicians will agree to be interviewed or have their name attached to their comments. Sounds fishy.......

    February 28, 2013 11:57 am at 11:57 am |
  23. Brad

    The emails in question have since been released and Woodward is trying to make himself relevant again. Really sad.

    February 28, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  24. Giz

    Our government is out of control, they have overstepped there mandate. Our government needs to step back and take a reality check.

    February 28, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
  25. newmalthus

    Lanny Davis: "Yeah, the White House threatened me too."

    February 28, 2013 11:58 am at 11:58 am |
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