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. Jc

    It amazes me that liberals still don't see Obama's culpability in all of this. Ppl are angry at the GOP led congress, and rightfully so, but half of the blame needs to be put on the Obama administration. The GOP compromised on the tax increase on Jan 1, and in turn Obama was going to cut spending by March 1st. Now Obama has no interest in cuts and wants more tax increases. Jacking up revenue from one sector of the population isn't going to fix our problems. If we can't find a place to make cuts now, we never will. Our deficit has increased by $335 billion in 4 years, even though the Iraqi war is over. The comment of "2 wars on a credit card" can now be changed to "running the government on a credit card". If borrowing the money was really such a hot button topic, then why are we borrowing even more when the most expensive war is over?

    February 28, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  2. principaldad

    Woodward is turning into a full on loon. He now seems to think his job is to "take down" every President, and to do so at all costs and despite all facts. He tried it with Bush and he is trying it with Obama. His misleading stories about Bush were just as bad. Here he ignores that the idea of sequester was that it was never supposed to go into effect. It was supposed to lead to compromise. For that reason, comparing it to plans to avoid it is just ridiculous. If Woodward can't even address reality and instead thinks he needs to push these fantasies, then he needs to retire.

    February 28, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  3. ingyandbert

    When I got my ears pierced at age 13, my father told me I would regret it someday. That was not a threat, just an opinion.

    Woodward is an idiot.

    February 28, 2013 12:16 pm at 12:16 pm |
  4. Frank

    This guy is going to find out really fast that its bad for a liberal journalist to criticize a democratic regime. Watch all his so called friends throw him under the bus, some dirt from his past is surely going to be brought up ( likely sexual in nature ), and he will probably get audited by the IRS and investigated for tax fraud. 6 months from now this guys name and reputation are going to be ruined.

    February 28, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  5. Jb

    That is not a threat. Come on Bob!

    February 28, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  6. matthmc

    It's not the strategy so much as its the norm. It's the way this White House handles everything. The Al Capone "Chicago Way" all the way down to Axelrod.

    February 28, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  7. WIMPY38

    Woodward still thinks he living off of his 40+ years of Watergate Fame, trying to find something out of nothing. Do us all a favor and write obituaries. At lease Bernstien is keeping a low profile.

    February 28, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  8. jerseydevils76

    God forbid a reporter reports the news and points out FACTS!!!!!!

    February 28, 2013 12:18 pm at 12:18 pm |
  9. CryBabies

    Leadership from the Executive Branch?.....KMA! This "Dweeb" of a President is pitiful and dangerous! There is no Royalty in this country...only elected officials, so....do your job Mr. President.

    February 28, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  10. Really?

    Stalling and pointing the finger don't count. You mean like what you just did?

    February 28, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  11. Dale

    Sequester and Taxes starting tomorrow.
    11 key United States Defense contractors. Lockheed Martin , Northrop Grumman , Boeing , Raytheon , General Dynamics , General Electric , L-3 Communications , Computer Sciences , Hewlett-Packard , Dell computers , Rockwell. “All fuel contractors”.

    All of them “Price gouging” the U.S. taxpayer.

    Do you think this “Sequesters” going to affect Defense contractors; their insider lobbyists are hard at work getting them around it.

    Do you think these insider contractors going to “”Pay their fair taxes”” to help with the National Debt, They are not their “lobbyists and tax lawyers” are working hard on tax loopholes.

    February 28, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  12. workhard03

    What bunch of lying clowns in the White House. These people really think they are working for a king and can say or do anything to get the message they want to the American people.

    February 28, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  13. cnnife

    And you seriously expect anyone to belief this? In a country that espouses and encourages freedom of speech and where every news is covered to the fullest extent possible, whay would the WH will send an email threatening a news media/reporter, and simply hopes that the reporter will simply keep quiet? hellllllloooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    February 28, 2013 12:19 pm at 12:19 pm |
  14. Fubarack

    Kim Jong Obamao found a journalist he can't control.

    February 28, 2013 12:20 pm at 12:20 pm |
  15. matthmc

    Joey u live in a fantasy candy land my friend , I wonder how much you get paid for that silly post? No budget in 4 years and running our economy into a brick wall pedal to the metal is hardly leadership.

    February 28, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  16. RoscoeDude

    Just one more Obama or Obama Admin and its dictatorial powers. Threats are far beneath a President of the United States, one would almost think a Drone would soon be seen over Woodwards Manhattan Apt.

    February 28, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  17. Ivan

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

    February 28, 2013 12:21 pm at 12:21 pm |
  18. jay wright

    Pathetic, whiny hack who only did one good piece-even then he needed help writing it.

    February 28, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  19. John

    They have been foreclosed. OPPT!

    February 28, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  20. John in NY

    So Obama says "let me raise taxes and we'll agree to cut spending" but now that the tax increases have been pushed through Obama wants to redifine cutting spending as even more tax increases, and the left wonders why the right don't trust anything they say?

    February 28, 2013 12:22 pm at 12:22 pm |
  21. Theresa

    The White House threatened him. They're going to send a secret agent after him and when they get him, they're going to break his pencil! Bob Woodard has been given exclusive access to the WH and to the President that other journalists only dream about. Now, that they're not friends anymore, he goes to CNN and says he's been threatened. What? Has he already spent all the money he made off those best-sellers?

    February 28, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  22. fletc3her

    I don't know what's more embarrassing: Woodward being lead hagiographer for the Bush White House. Or, Woodward manufacturing scandal to make himself seem relevant.

    February 28, 2013 12:23 pm at 12:23 pm |
  23. Joe

    It's about time someone in the news media spoke the truth about this failed administration. My hope is that the American people especially the low information voters that re-elected Obama wake up and open their eyes to the deliberate methodical destruction of our way of life. A high ranking government official threatening the press for speaking the truth is crossing the line. Obama takes responsibility for nothing. And why should he, the low information voters actually believe that after being in office for longer than 4 years, the problems with the economy are President Bush 's fault. Wake up America, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Hd on to your wallets, Obamas tax and spend mentality is coming for you.

    February 28, 2013 12:24 pm at 12:24 pm |
  24. RoscoeDude

    Joey, where did you receive your education? The House is expressly responsible for all financial matters per the Constitution. If the President cannot live on the TRILLIONS of DOLLARS allowed him by Congress and more precisely the House of Reps, perhaps Obama should get a second job!

    February 28, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  25. Jane

    Okay, Woodward has gotten some attention for himself and news media have created conflict on yet another item that when looked at closely, is not the ominous "threat" or the significant news item it was made to look like. Please move on.

    February 28, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
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