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. BlueAlliance

    What a cry baby......!!!! He can slander others and play gotcha with them, but when someone politely disagrees with him he cries wolf!!
    Release the emails please CNN!!! Woodward wants to discredit the White House nomatter what, and at the same time grab the headlines for himself. Pride comes before a fall Mr. Woodward!

    February 28, 2013 01:00 pm at 1:00 pm |
  2. Marc

    Dems: stop trying to spin this. Your side came up with this stupid sequester because they thought it was good politics against the GOP, and it blew up on them. Sorry, your side plays politics too. Now shut up and own it. End of story.

    February 28, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  3. ObjectiveGuy

    Not at all surprising for the Obama regime. The media has become accustomed to being bullied into not criticizing anything to do with this administration. Why else do you think that so many glaring issues get swept under the rug by the mainstream media?

    February 28, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  4. terence

    all you need to do is read the email to see this is being blown way out of proportion by both woodward and the media...and btw, ATPM was a long tim ago...he is like chubby checker still milking "the twist".

    February 28, 2013 01:01 pm at 1:01 pm |
  5. MoLa1959CT

    Bob Woodward used to be a respected journalist but he is acting oddly lately. His tv appearances have been somewhat incoherent and I think he has turned a bend towards senility.

    February 28, 2013 01:02 pm at 1:02 pm |
  6. repotm

    In response to "Concerned Voter"

    RE: " 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."

    Two words: Cheney and Bush

    February 28, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  7. Turtle52

    I listened to him on CNN last night, I don't believe his story. I think he was stretching the truth.
    He stammered and stuttered through the whole interview. As a veteran reporter he would have been
    more together. Somethings wrong with this story.........Hmmmmmm!!! I've never heard him stammer before.

    February 28, 2013 01:04 pm at 1:04 pm |
  8. Jnuey


    February 28, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  9. john

    Boo Hoo Think he knows how to handle it.

    February 28, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  10. Crygdyllyn

    Shakespeare said it best - "Much Ado About Nothing"

    February 28, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  11. zzz

    Finally! Someone from the mainstream media calling out Obama for what he is. Its funny to watch Obama's little people get all mad when someone calls them out. And if its not true what Woodward said, then why get upset? Thats usually a sign there is truth to it. Where there is smoke, there is fire. We can only hope more media members take the same approach as Woodward and call out Obama more. They would do it if it was a Republican president.

    February 28, 2013 01:05 pm at 1:05 pm |
  12. PghMom

    Obama is quoted as saying recently: "We have the plan right on a website, the White House website. Everybody can go see it. It details exactly how we can cut programs that don't work, how we can raise money by closing loopholes that are only serving a few, as opposed to the average American." Why weren't programs that "don't work" cut in your first term, Mr. President, so that taxpayer money could have been saved all along? Why can't politicians do the right thing instead of worrying about staying in power?

    February 28, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  13. YRU2L8

    How we all believed that a man who spent his entire life dividing the masses to unite the few would have a clue as to how to form a consensus, is beyond me.

    But thats where Axelrod and Plouffe did their job, and did it well. So well in fact, they can't stop. Even when they're off the payroll (supposedly).

    February 28, 2013 01:06 pm at 1:06 pm |
  14. Jill-IN

    Woodward sounds pathetic and wants to drum up sales on his book.

    February 28, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  15. penguin

    I wouldn't believe a word Woodward says. His opinions are just that- opinions. And they are devoid of a factual basis. Obama never took revenue out of the eqation when he sought to tax the very rich. In fact the so-called tax increase was actually a tax cut because even greater tax increase were scheduled to take effect January 1. Obama's biggest mistake was not letting the Bush tax breaks expire and negotiate from there. Obama is a lousy negotiator. If he were a private practice attorney, you'd be a fool to retain him

    February 28, 2013 01:08 pm at 1:08 pm |
  16. John Tighe

    I believe Obama more than I do Woodward, but not by much.

    February 28, 2013 01:09 pm at 1:09 pm |
  17. Joe

    When someone tells you, "You will regret this" then that is threat. There is no other way to interpret it. You only regret doing something if it impacts you in a negative way that you were not expecting.

    February 28, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  18. YRU2L8

    It seems as though I'm upset with the politicians. I'm not really. They are just doing what they do. The true travesty is that the publics true last line of defense, THE PRESS, has completely failed us. There was a time, boys and girls, when lies and mis-direction, would be revealed by the press. No longer. They all want to control your thoughts, not educate you.

    February 28, 2013 01:10 pm at 1:10 pm |
  19. MaryM

    Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, sent the email Woodward cited.

    Woodward and Sperling have known one another for decades, dating back to the time Sperling served as a top economic adviser in various posts during the Clinton administration.
    Sperling told Woodward that he would regret his article, Because Sperling thought Woodward was wrong.

    Bob Woodward reply to Gene Sperling:
    Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob

    No threat there at all

    February 28, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  20. ThomasamohT

    There is no threat here. I just see a bunch of complaining.

    February 28, 2013 01:11 pm at 1:11 pm |
  21. Sly

    Goes with the turf – all political writers will write things they will regret. Nature of the business.

    February 28, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  22. agathokles

    Woodward is just seeking publicity. "You'll regret this" can mean ANYTHING. From "you're going to feel remorseful eventually for what you did".... to. "in the future, we'll not give you the kind of access to the WH you've previously enjoyed" .... to.... "we're hiring a hit man from Chicago to take you out."

    February 28, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  23. Thomas M. Kelly

    Bob Woodward has been reading to much Bob Woodward and thinks very highly of Bob Woodward.
    Thomas M. Kelly

    February 28, 2013 01:12 pm at 1:12 pm |
  24. No Magic Underpants

    Poor old goat.

    February 28, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
  25. some guy in New Hampshire

    If the transcripts of e-mails released by the White House are accurate, they prove that Woodward wasn't threatened by anyone in any way. For someone known for careful reporting, how did Bob misinterpret this so badly?

    February 28, 2013 01:13 pm at 1:13 pm |
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