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. patty fraser

    woodward looking for a little press for his book OH YAH so transparent really a threat

    February 27, 2013 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  2. Jean Sartre

    "They're not happy at all," he said on CNN's "The Situation Room," adding that an e-mail from a senior administration official – who he would not name – communicated a message which caused him great concern.


    Personally, I think that both Gergen & Woodward are long past their sell by date... dementia is truly starting to set in.

    February 27, 2013 11:02 pm at 11:02 pm |
  3. Bill Smells

    And this is surprising why? The Obamanation is all about maintaining their perception and less about accomplishing anything for the middle class. They require the media to fall into lock step with THEIR message. I am not surprised at all.

    February 27, 2013 11:03 pm at 11:03 pm |
  4. Walther

    Not surprising in the least. You're either with this administration or against it. There is no middle road as Fox News found out.

    February 27, 2013 11:03 pm at 11:03 pm |
  5. Brent

    The Democrats are a bunch of losers! If you voted for this azz clown you get what you deserve...Obama loves the dummies of America.

    February 27, 2013 11:03 pm at 11:03 pm |
  6. Jake Sinepax

    Had I written a muckraking diatribe such as this Windbag has (merely google Obama's sequester deal-changer and read the article) then I would definitely regret it. I'm sure the White House did in fact send a strongly worded email, but this is irresponsible reporting. It starts with a very broad, nasty comment that is not defended in the piece but rather left to stand of its own tottering ability, and goes on to state, rather verbosely, that in the halls of various of our Washington edifices, politics are a continual flux. No president before has received the vitriol of Obama. How is this true when he is trying more than any before him to level the playing field for those who weren't gifted a comfortable future?

    February 27, 2013 11:03 pm at 11:03 pm |
  7. lovemygirl

    Finally, the thuggish ChiTown behavior is being reported. Valerie Jarret said after the election that they could now reward their supporters and punish their detractors. What happened to representing all the people of the USA?

    February 27, 2013 11:04 pm at 11:04 pm |
  8. Tom Wagner

    "he is moving the goal posts... that was not the deal he made."
    This statement is simply not true. The deal that was made was that there is an alternate solution or the sequester happens. Having the alternate solution contain revenue is not changing the deal or moving the goal posts any more than a solution that contains different spending cuts is. No one expected the super committee to come up with a solution that was spending cuts only. What a ridiculous bit of hyperbole.

    February 27, 2013 11:04 pm at 11:04 pm |
  9. asifgill

    Let's hope it's not the strategy. I agree.
    It is unfortunate and disappointing that our President or his aides would do such a deplorable thing.

    February 27, 2013 11:04 pm at 11:04 pm |
  10. joe mauro

    not even nixon did that.

    February 27, 2013 11:05 pm at 11:05 pm |
  11. Mike Piscata

    Seems like the White House has gone gangnam style. Or is that Chicago style??

    February 27, 2013 11:05 pm at 11:05 pm |
  12. Sam

    Repeat after me five times: economy is improving, and more jobs are saved and-or created.

    February 27, 2013 11:06 pm at 11:06 pm |
  13. mindcrime

    I'll believe it when he makes the email public.

    February 27, 2013 11:06 pm at 11:06 pm |
  14. juliecake

    Even those of us who are fans are tired of Bob Woodward thinking he is the real president.

    February 27, 2013 11:07 pm at 11:07 pm |
  15. budter

    You do not threaten Bob Woodward

    February 27, 2013 11:07 pm at 11:07 pm |
  16. EdG

    Oh, geez. Now the paranoia aspect of dementia is setting in for Woodward. I hope he has a good Alzheimers doctor who can help make his remaining days more comfortable.

    February 27, 2013 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  17. randy

    The White House is a building not a person. A person made the threat. Stand for something and name the person instead of playing childish games.

    February 27, 2013 11:08 pm at 11:08 pm |
  18. The Great Satan

    He was threatened? Oh my, this is shocking.

    February 27, 2013 11:09 pm at 11:09 pm |
  19. Jim

    Obama got his tax increase in January. He is like a broken record player. As for Mr. Woodward, I wouldn't worry – it's not like they could order a full tax audit or anything!

    February 27, 2013 11:09 pm at 11:09 pm |
  20. ds

    imagine that...does that really surprise anyone...

    February 27, 2013 11:09 pm at 11:09 pm |
  21. Klieglamp

    Woodward has been arrogantly hostile to POTUS et al from the beginning – BW can't stand his irrelevance in the new millennium. He really should retire to CT.

    February 27, 2013 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  22. Biggy Smalls the Illest

    Wow, what a thug regime this has turned into. Government is OUT OF CONTROL in this country, from the beat cop to the congressman. The American people need to give these thugs a wake up call.

    February 27, 2013 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  23. woodin59

    The White house did not threaten Woodward. Supposedly a WH individual made a comment on Woodward's report effort. If there is any merit to his claim,then show the email and the individual. Regret is hardly a threat on any level. In Woodward's mind...I guess being uninvited to the WH or left out in the media cold is threat. Sounds very yellow........

    February 27, 2013 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  24. Rob

    Release the email so we can judge for ourselves. ie Put up or shut-up!

    February 27, 2013 11:10 pm at 11:10 pm |
  25. Mister Putter

    Hey everyone, Bob Woodward's talking! Everyone pay attention to him! What he has to say is extremely important.

    February 27, 2013 11:11 pm at 11:11 pm |
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