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. Robb

    JOEY>>.Are you kidding me? What exactly has the White House done other than go out and campaign to the people! Obama needs to be in Washington working this thing out.....Reid is no better...Obama has not even put forth a budget for the House or the Senate to pick apart! This administration will go down as the worst in History...As these current members of the House and Senate will likely be the worst in History!

    February 28, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  2. Laughingman

    Yes, Bob Woodward has played a part in the history of this country, i.e. Watergate; but to me, he has waved that "flag" for far too many years. He had tremendous access during the Bush years, and now that he is treated like any other reporter, he is acting like a little child throwing a temper tantrum. He is orchestrating his own news story rather than accept that he has to do the hard work of any other investigative reporter. Bob Woodward is a legend in his own mind. He should grow up and act like an adult, cover the news like any other reporter, and stop this foolishness of creating his own news like a pouty little child.

    February 28, 2013 12:25 pm at 12:25 pm |
  3. grateful2b

    I read the actual e-mails on another before seeing the story here ... I used to admire Bob Woodward, but no way he was threatened. This is just pathetic.

    February 28, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  4. Tom Mcgloughlin

    CNN, how does the White House response conviently pop up at the end of the interview? not very impartial.

    February 28, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  5. Brad

    A journalist that can't handle a little resistance from the White House needs to suck it up.

    February 28, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  6. ab77

    The sequester will put people out of work and will cut many people's income, including my own. Yet the income and pensions of Congressmen remain untouched. Surprise, surprise.

    Congress is the opposite of progress.

    February 28, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  7. ambro

    This type of threatening behavior has been a staple of this administration since the begining, "the repulicans can come along but they have to ride in the back of the bus". The supreme court openly threatened and berated in a state of the union address. John Mcain "the election is over John, I won". Joe the plummer. Doctor Carson. Andrew Brightbart. Threats of global warming. Going over 6% unemployment. Taking sides in racial matters the president should never have broached. Andrew Brightbart and Tim Russert...both of whom died sudenly of unexpected massive heart attacks.

    February 28, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  8. Joe

    Joey, who's idea was sequestration ? That wild be Barack Hussein Obama. And now he will finally have to admit it.

    February 28, 2013 12:26 pm at 12:26 pm |
  9. lean6

    All I ever get from Woodward is an understanding of why administrations selectively talk to the press. I mean this guy is nothing but a snake who you'd be foolish to assume anything you ever said or did in front of him was in confidence...so watch the flatulence. He's a walking Wiki leaks. So now he prints this and I'm supposed to get visions of him being targeted for a drone strike or something? He's no different than the media people whining about not getting invited to watch the president play golf with Tiger Woods or nitpicking the president's pot belly in those skeet shots.

    February 28, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  10. Chuck

    Who cares Mr Woodard. You are in the reporting business, strap up your boots and quit whining.

    February 28, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  11. Marion

    . "The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more."

    That is not a threat, it is a statement that tells Woodward he will regret saying something that is inaccurate. (whether or not it is inaccurate is irrelevant). Big difference.

    February 28, 2013 12:27 pm at 12:27 pm |
  12. Rossko

    This shouldn't surpise anybody who has been paying attention – the white house has failed to take responsibility for anything – still claiming it's all bush's fault – as they move us to a totalitarian type of centralized government who wants to disarm their citizens, take all our money and decided how they feel it should be distributed, and make decisions like Benghazi then act like nobody knew anything about it. They bash the constitution on a regular basis did you not think they would eventually go after the press and the first admendment as well?

    February 28, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  13. 60minuteman

    I don't care where the "goal posts" are. It is time to close loopholes. The republicans are still just protecting the rich.

    February 28, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  14. paulolololshmidt

    opt out of the gov. while you can

    February 28, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  15. mark

    anytime I see someone doing something I thing it wrong I tell them they may or will regret it. that is not a threat mr woodward stop being so dramatic. you have made many comments in the recent past showing you are all about gotcha and less about all of the facts. I find this very disappointing from a guy with your experience and gravitas. I take you much less seriously the last couple of years. Considering how bad the republican house has conducted itself over these economic issues and the obvious sentiment of the public based on numerous polls you would have served this country much better spending your time on an expose of their dealings as opposed to what the WH has had to deal with which has forced them in to a deadly game of chicken. You really are wrong here and i would have to agree......you are going to regret it. In fact you really do deserve to lose the access these people gave you to see the inner workings but to be fair about reporting them. You have lost my support.

    February 28, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  16. June

    From everything I have seen, in this whole debt ceiling and debt issue, I feel that "historical logic" simply does not support Woodward's conclusion.

    Prior to the sequester, all serious deals being worked on and proposed, had both revenues and spending as solutions including Simpson/ Bowels, etc.

    It has always been widely understood by everyone, that that was the ultimate goal.

    The sequester was ONLY done to avoid a default by the GOP in the 11th hour. It was ransom paid. The GOP agreed to not default based on the sequester, which was only meant as a means to hold everyone's feet to the fire to get a grand bargain, containing both revenues and spending cuts, and was not seen as a solution (it was actually set up to be the anti-solution).

    It has never been unclear as to what was intended to be done instead of the sequester, and that was both revenues and spending cuts. Never a doubt.

    Now the accusation of threats?

    Once again, I feel it is a logical glitch. As they said above, all were expressing their "regrets" over the argument having occurred, and for someone to suggest that Woodward would also have "regrets" as a result of perhaps realizing he was wrong, is certainly not far fetched either.

    I am concerned over the level of confusion.

    February 28, 2013 12:28 pm at 12:28 pm |
  17. Fubarack

    Woodward nailed it. Obama always wants a different deal later, than the one he agreed to.

    February 28, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  18. James Martin

    WHy don't you report the cheery emails Woodward sent the White house after they apologized to him for an arguement? Yellow journallism at its worst.

    February 28, 2013 12:29 pm at 12:29 pm |
  19. ronmac

    Depends what you consider leadership Joey, I think the Executive Branch is the biggest problem. Great leaders know how to negotiate, not force feed their views down others throats.

    February 28, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  20. Jim M

    It's tragic that this once great author has finally gone senile.

    February 28, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  21. CNeder

    It seems to be that this story would be front and center in CNN's documentation of bullying. Let's see if the CNN tabloid will do what's right.

    February 28, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  22. jeff

    Executive leadership – really! We are broke period. $ 901 billion projected deficit for 2013 and we arguing over a sequester cut of $ 85 billion. It should more than double as a start! No more tax increases. Cut across the broad 10 to 15% and hopefully begin to trim the waste. Just like a corporation needing to make cuts to survive – everything on the table.

    February 28, 2013 12:30 pm at 12:30 pm |
  23. localyokel

    If the White House threatened someone everytime they got caught lying, Barry would never have time to campaign.

    February 28, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  24. ray

    Dude you had your 15 minutes of fame in the 1970's. Go away.

    February 28, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  25. JC

    So the WH denies that it was a threat. So, they are suggesting that we believe that someone in Washington was going to have a bout of Conscience and feel bad about, what they are calling lies, and THAT is what Mr. Woodward is going to "regret"? How can "you" (that support this administration) keep believing this stuff. And yes, I voted for the President but this is getting too far fetched even for me.

    February 28, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
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