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. What Now

    Wow, seems as if Mr. Woodward has found a way to keep himself high on the news pole. We should all question a journalist who chooses to make himself the topic of conversation. I wonder if this will help him sell his latest book?

    February 28, 2013 12:31 pm at 12:31 pm |
  2. going with eli on this one...

    sounds manufactured to me...making a mountain out of a molehill...may be hired help was threatening...not the White House.

    February 28, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  3. Jose79845

    The fastest way to regret a career in journalism is to question the drug war. Obama has just taken it to a new level.

    February 28, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  4. Frank

    Plouffe...what a richard cranium statement about Woodward. Perfection happens only once? But reputation lasts forever

    February 28, 2013 12:32 pm at 12:32 pm |
  5. Switters

    Sound like Woodward is applying for one of those high paying Roger Ailes' jobs......

    February 28, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  6. Kandawala Kiberenge Burukenge

    Let the left and the right get together and solve this problem. Stop wasting our time–please!

    February 28, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  7. Mack Rhoades

    I don't know what Woodward's problem is except that he is still looking for another Watergate and has become a miserable old man in the process.

    February 28, 2013 12:33 pm at 12:33 pm |
  8. Bill

    No more business as usual...


    February 28, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  9. cav66

    Listen to all the Dems circling the wagons to discredit one of their heros. I guess that's what happens when you stop spewing the party line like the rest of the state run media. I'm sure there will be a poll out soon saying most Americans don't believe what Bob Woodward says anyway, and we can all go back to blaming Republicans for all our problems. It's their fault we're over 16 trillion in debt in the first...oh wait...Well it's their fault that half the country is on welfare..huh, no way...It has to be their fault that China is publicly pimp slapping us by openly hacking our national institutions..What do mean perceived as weak internationally??...Embassy attack?..What embassy attack??...Well our energy policy is better..No energy policy?..Gas prices through the roof?..No end in sight?..What do you mean the sequester really was his idea?..You'll regret tha..oops..But he is so cool..I can't listen anymore..Who is he playing golf with this week?..What awards show is Michelle hosting?...What do you mean Rome burning?....

    February 28, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  10. PHilPoindexter

    Funny how the White House gets upset when journalism is truthful and honest.

    February 28, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  11. Samson

    Why not print the freaking actual e-mails – they're short and available – CNN???? Because it would make plain that there was absolutely no threat, but rather an amicable note to the effect that Sperling beleives Woodword is on the wrong side of the facts and will be embarassed as a journalist when those fact become clear.

    February 28, 2013 12:34 pm at 12:34 pm |
  12. Mike

    Its official the end of Journalism has arrived! Woodward should be ashamed of himself, for him to twist an apology that included some advice about how he was wrong on the issue into a threat is beyond the pale.

    February 28, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  13. Concerned Voter

    Talking points bulletin has been sent out to all Obama trolls:
    1) Discredit Woodward by pointing out his age, suggest dementia. Use the words 'washed up'
    2) Discredit the level of threat portrayed. Use the words 'regret is hardly a threat on any level'
    3) Blame Republicans for something, anything.

    Take note of how many times you see this repeated. You can also tell by the volume of posts just what exactly their social media strategists are concerned about. If it's a problem, they will deploy trolls in an aggressive, targeted manner. Proper response:
    1) Bob Woodward is a respected journalist, hardly a supporter of the right. He is a supporter of the truth and will not be intimidated by the WH or by any amount of social media manufactured reputation damage. He has more friends in the media than the WH.
    2) This WH has a long and demonstrable track record for character assassination and this is what they are doing now because they are in a shear panic. If Bob Woodward turns, this gives permission to other journalists, and the WH cannot accomplish their tactics without support from the media.
    3) We the people have had enough of this, we deserve truth, integrity and leadership from our Executive Branch. What we have now are a bunch of thugs.

    February 28, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  14. JayneQP

    Written communication is so open to interpretation. "You will regret this".... a warning that you are about to do something that will have far reaching and potentially unfortunate consequences (friend tells a friend that in marrying the jerk, she will regret it) ? Or a threat that you will personally be attacked professionally or physically if you continue to do something we don't like. Hard to say without being involved in the situation personally, but we sure do try to use it to make our own points! LOL!

    February 28, 2013 12:35 pm at 12:35 pm |
  15. long fisch

    It appears speaking out against someone from you own party only gets you hate from party loyalists, no different than when President Bush was in office.

    February 28, 2013 12:36 pm at 12:36 pm |
  16. Jack33

    It doesn't really sound like much of a threat at all from what I'm seeing. Either Woodward is reading too much into a statement that looked to imply he would be on the wrong side of the facts and embarrass himself as a journalist (thus regret it), or he's taking the words out of context on purpose for whatever reason.

    February 28, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  17. andrew

    It's time for the idiots in Washington to realize they work for the people of this country.......They are not members of a clubhouse.....They were put in office to serve the people , Not their own self interests ! ! Get to work boys....Time to earn that excessive pay & benefits.

    February 28, 2013 12:37 pm at 12:37 pm |
  18. MichaelATL

    Seems the Obama fans are out in force on this site. Look at all the hate directed at Bob Woodward. Bob Woodward is a left leaning journalist that expressed some facts. This administration did create their own problem and now use it to attack the GOP and scare Americans. I am by far no fan of the GOP due to the fact their leaders have more sucking power than a milking machine.

    If this administration sent an e-mail to Bob after screaming at him on the phone and stating he will regret his comments then we have an issue. It is not for this President or his administration to threaten any citizen of the United State. Those of you who wish to write this off by calling Bob Woodward names and comments on his age show just how one sided you really are. Changing the subject to blame Republicans does not further your cause either. The President is not a God or a king and is prone to error as any other human.

    February 28, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  19. mk82lald

    I guess he was probably wrong about Nixon then also.

    February 28, 2013 12:38 pm at 12:38 pm |
  20. Lokust

    I don't believe this guy at all. I think he's just trying to get more press and attention for himself.

    February 28, 2013 12:39 pm at 12:39 pm |
  21. Aces Full, Mike

    Standard Chicago thugary politics, only surprise here is C N N actually reported it.

    February 28, 2013 12:40 pm at 12:40 pm |
  22. Big_D

    Woodward's opinion is wrong in the opinion of the Administration? Cat fight!

    February 28, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  23. well

    give it a day or two, damaging information about woodward will be leaked. if that doesn't shut him up, bring out the drones!

    February 28, 2013 12:41 pm at 12:41 pm |
  24. Mia

    I honestly don't know how we ever will make any progress with this situation. It is tiresome and honestly will be thankful when some of these 'good old boys' retire/move on/get voted out. Interesting Bob Woodward's take on the comment. Sounds like over reacting and a good way to get into the press' limelight. Very sad on his part.

    February 28, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  25. JMBIII

    I am embarrassed any of these folks represent me any longer.. There is so much finger pointing and turmoil.. I honestly do not who to believe anymore.. its beyond sad. Boehner appears to only want to go against the President no matter what he wants to do and then blames lack of leadership. There are fundamental differences between Repubs and Dems but too often they're more willing to try and out do one another rather than finding common ground. I am sick of all this.. I say we fire all these selfish clowns and put new folks in both houses. 2 term limits and thats it.. these guys are single handedly destroying this country..

    February 28, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
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