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. hozay

    Woodward already got rid of one presidential thug, it's time to do it again...

    February 28, 2013 12:42 pm at 12:42 pm |
  2. ambro

    Claiming Bin Gazi attacks were outbreaks from a riot for weeks. America wont be able to pay the interest on its debts without raising taxes. It is an operation of lie so boldly that the opposition is stunned. Claims to shoot guns and then a picture shooting a blank firing rifle (not a real gun based on the smoke, barel width, porting) and not at the right angle for skeet shooting. Ads like Mitt Romney kills cancer patients!!!!!

    February 28, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  3. Az

    Typical Chicago gangster in the Whitehouse.

    February 28, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  4. Tom Liebengood

    Woodward is wayward and an ass! Journalist charlatan!

    February 28, 2013 12:43 pm at 12:43 pm |
  5. Rev

    Sounds like a difference in context, thus is the problem with communication through email and twitter. On the one hand, Woodward read the email in an angry aggressive context like "You're going to regret this!". Axelrod's point says that the email was to sound more like a courtesy expression of disappointment like "My friend, I'm disappointed you see it that way, and I think later on you'll realize your error and regret your initial assumption". Unfortunately, without actually hearing sperling's voice and emotion, it'd difficult to tell. Since threatening somebody via email with "you will regret this" sounds like political suicide, I'm thinking the latter non-aggressive version was the intent. But you never know......

    February 28, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  6. ElderCompass

    OMG – The text of the entire email is not threatening at all and this is Bob's attempt to sell more books. Period – It's not even a controversial subject. Buyt if you are all ok with the Reps cutting SS and Medicare and throwing more people out o=into the street... go ahead and make a big deal of this nothing

    February 28, 2013 12:44 pm at 12:44 pm |
  7. NorCalMojo

    How dare he question the DNC infallibility doctrine.

    February 28, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  8. MesaMax

    Obama created the Obamaquester. Obama owns the Obamaquester. Obama cannot escape the Obamaquester.

    February 28, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  9. lean6

    Wow, that Woodard is a snake. Look for his new book coming to a shelf near you.

    February 28, 2013 12:45 pm at 12:45 pm |
  10. Tommy

    Nice to see a liberal with integrity and calling out the King Obama. Liberal with Integrity. Is that a oxymoron??

    February 28, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  11. doughnuts

    If Woodward felt threatened by a very poite and mildly-worded apology (which is what the e-mail was), I'd hate to see how much he cowers after receiving an actual threat or rebuke.

    February 28, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  12. lvas

    mountain out of a molehill. Woodward is wrong in how he views "moving the goal post" and there have been many in the press that have stated Woodward is wrong – so point one. Point two if you read the emails the WH was telling Woodward he was incorrect in his statements and that he would regert those statements. you all can make more of it that it is – but hey thats what folks do nowdays in DC. anywho – we all know Woordward is just trying to sell more books – so his comments are self-serving.

    February 28, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  13. pink hase

    Shame on you Bob Woodward. You know that there was not "threat" to you in any way. I suppose you are now regretting you stupidity and arrogance. It is very sad to see you in this light. I HAD so much respect for you, now I am questioning if anything you wrote is true. Shame on you Bob Woodward.

    February 28, 2013 12:46 pm at 12:46 pm |
  14. Abbey

    Watch the Obama drones now attack Mr. Woodward with juvenile lines. Almost predictable on how they react...

    February 28, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  15. Rudy NYC

    They probably threatened to cut him from access to insider information. For as long as Woodward has been around, I am certain that this is not the first time that he's been threatened with being cut off. He's playing into the right wing conspiracy machine to make it sound like a mafia hit or something.

    February 28, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  16. manhandler1

    Anything to sell a book. This guy is a pathetic has been. He received a lot of attention when he outed Nixon's scheme and now he's trying anything to keep from fading into nothingness by attacking Obama. While he's out there attacking Obama did he notice that this sequester agreement was reached because of the Tea Party's refusal to raise the debt ceiling? Guess he conveniently forgot that part......doesn't go along with his David defeating Goliath fantasy that he has in going on his own mind.

    February 28, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  17. Matt


    Plenty of leadership from the Executive Branch, but no action from the Legislative Brance [i.e. Congress, i.e. Senate and House of Representatives] , Speaker Boehner! What exactly do you folks accomplish, anyway, to earn your paychecks? Stalling and pointing the finger don't count."

    What universe is this moron living in?

    February 28, 2013 12:47 pm at 12:47 pm |
  18. Anonymous


    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  19. Nemi

    I have high respect for Woodward but he becoming part of republican party, instead of a true journalist. Is he joining politics. We need journalist like him, not a political figure....

    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  20. Disgusted

    Why am I not surprised? Just another job for the henchmen. They have been pretty slow since the election.

    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  21. JMBIII

    So the media can dig into these people lives, intentionally distort the truth to make stories sound more interesting and when one of them gets upset we are supposed to feel bad ?? Ok, Bob Woodward.. stop acting like a baby, its about time. I am surprised more of these people do not get upset of call out the lying media. I certainly would, I would probab;ly take it one step farther. The media thinks they can do whatever they want and use freedom of the press to cover up dishonesty and pushes issues.. well that goes both ways Bobby... quick crying and act like a man you sissy mary baby.. !!!!!!! What a jerk....

    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  22. Culpepper

    I think Mister Woodward should give the White House a little Watergate style taste of just who they are dealing with

    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  23. USAPeasant

    To all the people who don't believe this guy, ask yourself this. Why would the White House release apology and cover-up statements if a threat was not directed towards Woodward? If nothing was said, why has there been a White House response?

    That aside, I think it is very frightening that we have someone in the White House meticulously reading peoples articles and then threatening them for their use of free speech and freedom of the press. All Woodward did was point out that Obama and the dems are just as complicit in the Sequester as the GOP is. Just becuase this does not fit into the DNC propaganda to totally blame the GOP does not merit a high official threatening a journalist. This is something I'd expect to read about in news about China, not America.

    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  24. Tom Arnold

    The WH is a big bully and need to take responsibility for its actions. The whole idea was Obamas and when his punk peon bullies make threats like these they should be fired

    February 28, 2013 12:48 pm at 12:48 pm |
  25. Wiener Rottenkrotch

    This administration is the biggest fraud/biggest joke that I've experienced during my time on this earth. Obama is full of bunk/says whatever he wants to scare the people, all with the intent of sliding a tax increase on the US public. Fortunately nobody is taking him seriously or even listening anymore! I've never felt such disgust for a president in my life and can't wait until they kick this ass out of the white house in another 3 years, 10 months and 20 days!

    February 28, 2013 12:49 pm at 12:49 pm |
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