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. Timbuck2

    Show me the email...

    February 28, 2013 12:04 pm at 12:04 pm |
  2. John

    I seriously think Bob Woodward is inflating a molehill into a mountain to continue his claim to be the guy who reveals the inside story. What exactly does it matter who thought of the sequester to get past the last phony deadline set because these people are unable to be reasonable and to use common sense and patriotism to find a compromise. We get it that you people in Washington cannot agree on anything for fear you might not get re-elected and have to get a real job making what we peons make. Now get to work and earn your pay, for crying out loud. And Bob, baby, the sequester is not the big deal, the expiration of the continuing resolution on March 27 is. Focus, baby focus.

    February 28, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  3. susie

    Seriously Joey do you have any connection with reality? One of the most trusted journalists of all time is telling you the truth, and you chose to cover your ears and sing.

    February 28, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  4. tomnikoly

    Mr. Woodward:

    I do not think this means what you think it means.

    February 28, 2013 12:05 pm at 12:05 pm |
  5. Country Above Parties

    "...you will regret doing this" a statement in a email between two known for decades, do you call it a threat? What an absurd! The once admired writer Woodword's head need to be examined.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  6. Tracy

    That’s the Chicago way up there in the White House. A White House full of Chicago thugs. I would believe Mr. Woodward over this administration any day. I just hope with Mr. Woodward speaking the truth it doesn't cause him to pay dearly for it.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  7. rubric

    This administration is out of control! Has Nixon somehow returned to the White House in a new form?

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  8. Roderick

    So what if they told him he might regrete it. It's not like they are threatening to beat him with a baseball bat. I think journalist are out of control.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  9. Ollie

    Lying Kenyans aren't big fans of transparency.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  10. lil

    Woodard is just trying to get his name back in the news. woodward has lied about something and probably made threat and decided to go public because they were going to expose him. I never believe anything he or politico says anyway. People will believe him though with help from the news networks as usual.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  11. Thicker Skin

    "you will regret doing this" constitutes a threat?
    Grow some thicker skin. It is more accurate to say that someone gave you a message that conveys how they expect you will feel at some arbitrary point in the future. Grow up and respond, "Doubt it" or just ignore it.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  12. carlos

    woodward once again looking for attention.............no threat....irrelevance Bob ????

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  13. Lily

    This White House is showing it's true colors more every day. It's Michelle Obama making untrue remarks about "automatic weapons" in the case of the Chicago teen girl being killed in order to gain leverage for their gun control plans, then the Prez ramping up the fear mongering by making apparently untrue or skewed statements on the effects of sequestration and an underling in his administration sending "veiled" threats to a highly respected journalist. This is no way to govern!

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  14. TonyG

    CNN might want to wander over to the Politico site to see how they've been scooped by a posting of the actual email exchange. It tells a very different story. Perhaps next time they'll investigate what actually happened before relying on heresay.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  15. jimmy

    Old guy trying to remain relevant. He's always been an attention seeker.

    February 28, 2013 12:06 pm at 12:06 pm |
  16. Ivan

    Such a crybaby. If you can't stand the heat, you're old enough to know what to do.

    February 28, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  17. Eddie

    Leadership from the White House!!! Give me a break. There is no leadership at all. This is the worse situation I have ever seen. Both parties are making the public go under such horrible stress. They're playing these "games". We need to take our country back. I am so serious. I have never felt this frustrated over the people we have voted in to the White House and in Congress. The Democrats want us to become Socialists. The Republicans want us to feed the rich. Unreal. Our Founding Fathers are turning over in their graves. My friends who either work for the Government or work for Defense Contractors are in a living hell. They are going to lose their jobs because our so called leaders are playing footsie's with each other. WE NEED AN AMERICAN SPRING!!!!!!

    February 28, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  18. GI Joe

    He's stirring up stuff again - it will create higher book sales for the one coming out soon. Can't make too much money, can he? I guess as Woodward gets older he wants as much money as possible for retirement. Oh well. All Hype, no Bite.

    February 28, 2013 12:07 pm at 12:07 pm |
  19. Lavon

    Bob had lots of words to say with absolutely NOTHING to back his claim except a history of being 'less than honorable' at best.

    February 28, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  20. TomGI

    Yeah, go public asking everyone to feel sorry for you. You can dish it out but you can't take the backlash. TFB. Sometimes a bigmouth gets his teeth knocked out. Deal with it crybaby.

    February 28, 2013 12:08 pm at 12:08 pm |
  21. Indy

    Woodward should have quit while he was ahead. He comes across like a sniviling, whining old man that got called out for his lies. He and Judy Miller should ride off into the sunset.

    February 28, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  22. Sam

    Let us look at the history of how Obama leads. He leads like his experience as a community organizer is trained. He creates a crisis that he can rail against and try and shame others to seeing things his twisted way. Just look at his continued use of the word balance when he talks about cutting the increase of spending. He wants to increase taxes. WOW. He got what he wanted in the fiscal cliff deal, only tax increases and no reduction in spending. That is balance in Obama's twisted lib mind. Now when he is faced with dealing with the agreement he created and signed into law dealing solely with spending cuts he talks about balance once again. Balance to an agreement that was only dealing with spending cuts. He wants more tax increases. We are in trouble. No doubt.

    February 28, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  23. Ancient Texan

    Obama is campaigner extraordinaire, no body is better! Leader?- Not by any stretch of the imagination.

    February 28, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  24. Dave

    Bob, you are covered. You have something called "Freedom of Speech" that is protected by the Constitution. So, this dictatorial behaviors are unethical and illegal. Sue this guy.

    February 28, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
  25. reasonablebe

    maybe he will regret it, maybe not. seems like a statement of opinion- common enough for people to say to others- not a 'threat.'

    February 28, 2013 12:09 pm at 12:09 pm |
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