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. Tim

    OK guys, now you know what Chicago politics is all about.

    February 27, 2013 11:11 pm at 11:11 pm |
  2. cuisinemanager

    This is a startling admission and even a more startling way for the Obama and his staff to deal with people that say things they either don't like or disagree with. This is America, the first amendment right is something that is sacrosanct and should never be taken for granted. Obama's facade is coming undone, fiscal cliffs, sequestration, blaming others for policies he clearly put in place. As an political observer it is interesting watch the administration coming apart at the seams, as an American it is sad to think that this behavior and these lackluster policies are hurting the country to such a great extent.

    February 27, 2013 11:12 pm at 11:12 pm |
  3. scmaize

    Woodward has turned into a complete nut. Even if you try to overlook the giant ego, you can't justify his malicious comments and behavior.

    February 27, 2013 11:12 pm at 11:12 pm |
  4. Mitchell

    why doesn't the President cut Big Bank subsidies which is about $83 Billion. supposedly he hates big business. Then he wouldn't have to go through the sequestration process or allow it to happen and we could see the budget repaired twice as fast. I think in fact, he is in the pocket of Big Banks AND Big Business and completely lieing to the American public.

    February 27, 2013 11:12 pm at 11:12 pm |
  5. Al Capone

    Chicago Style Politics, circa 1930. The only kind this current administration knows. Strong arm any 'gangs' that oppose you in any way. This is the Al Capone Doctrine.

    February 27, 2013 11:12 pm at 11:12 pm |
  6. Tutrillo

    Ok Liberals ... How are you going to manipulate this to blame the GOP? Make sure to do your homework before you respond.

    February 27, 2013 11:12 pm at 11:12 pm |
  7. Marty

    That's the obama way....threats and intimidation. Welcome to the dictatorship.

    February 27, 2013 11:13 pm at 11:13 pm |
  8. GlueckAuf

    Bob Woodward is clearly off the main stream media reservation. Bad news for the president, but a refreshing change from the hacks and Obama lapdogs posing as "journalists" these days. Bravo, Bob. Your moral courage in the face of the most opaque and deceptive US regime in recent history gives me hope America might just survive the age of Obama.

    February 27, 2013 11:14 pm at 11:14 pm |
  9. Alex

    Bob Woodward is a little stuck on himself. I think he does a lot of good work and is generally fairly objective. But he does self promote a lot and this "threat" seems a bit exagerated to me. But hey, he is getting the press he wants and may sell a few more books.

    February 27, 2013 11:14 pm at 11:14 pm |
  10. Art

    In the deal that postponed the fiscal cliff until March, the president did NOT get all of the revenue increases he wanted so asking for them again now is NOT moving the goal post. Poor reporting by Woodward, in my opinion

    February 27, 2013 11:14 pm at 11:14 pm |
  11. Brian

    I sometimes wonder who does more damage to America. Politicians or so-called journalists.

    February 27, 2013 11:14 pm at 11:14 pm |
  12. James Bess

    If the WH is so sure it was not a threatening e-mail, why don't they just go ahead and make it public and prove Mr. Woodward wrong...My bet is they can't...

    February 27, 2013 11:15 pm at 11:15 pm |
  13. S.A. Wolf

    Threatening a respected journalist? barry is a tyrant thug and Americans who voted again for this administration are complete fools. Amazing that the Founding Fathers knew that those that gravitate toward power through governmental control would be the biggest threat to our FREEDOMS.

    February 27, 2013 11:15 pm at 11:15 pm |
  14. SecrtSqurl

    "an e-mail from a senior administration official – who he would not name – communicated a message which caused him great concern."

    He does not show the e-mail, nor does he name the source. Typical.... he can make up anything he wants. Who, without any evidence, trusts a journalist anymore.

    February 27, 2013 11:15 pm at 11:15 pm |
  15. Eric

    Woodward did a great job of "Keeping them honest" in this Washington Post editorial.

    February 27, 2013 11:15 pm at 11:15 pm |
  16. jamessavik

    Obama's true colors: red and yellow.

    February 27, 2013 11:16 pm at 11:16 pm |
  17. Jeff

    It's time for the GOP to stand up and help the President run this country, because if they don't some will be looking for a new job next election and what are the chances of a GOP choice making it into the White House if they fight the President like this. Hey neither party is doing a good job but for now Dem's have the White House and need GOP support. What happens when the GOP get the Presidency will they really expect the Dem's to support their programs. Get together or the Voters will force you.

    February 27, 2013 11:16 pm at 11:16 pm |
  18. Gordon Brown

    Woodward has always been an overplayed joke and still is.

    February 27, 2013 11:18 pm at 11:18 pm |
  19. Bill

    This is the same unbiased reported that broke Watergate. So The White House threatens him? I guess Rush is right. It is a Regime.

    February 27, 2013 11:18 pm at 11:18 pm |
  20. G_Edwards

    Surprised? He grew up with Chicago politics.


    February 27, 2013 11:18 pm at 11:18 pm |
  21. MomofFour

    What, someone actually questioned this administration's tactics. I wonder his long that'll last.

    February 27, 2013 11:19 pm at 11:19 pm |
  22. Charles

    They picked the wrong reporter to intimidate.

    February 27, 2013 11:19 pm at 11:19 pm |
  23. Rememberwhatbushdid

    Woodward knows full well the White House simply meant his recently biased reporting would be proven to be wrong on the facts once again. He used to be good. But he's trying to recapture the attention and adoration he enjoyed with the Watergate scandal. He's blowing his own legacy.

    February 27, 2013 11:20 pm at 11:20 pm |
  24. Anonymous

    Woodward has really been making this story more about himself then the sequestration issue and seems to have lost his objectivity. Given that objectivity was always considered Woodward's chief asset, you have to wonder if his time has come and gone and basically he is now on some kind of self promotion tour to sell books and command speaking fees. I think it is ime to stop considering Woodward to be journalist.

    February 27, 2013 11:21 pm at 11:21 pm |
  25. are122

    I think everyone already knew the sequester came from Obama...oh, except of course the Obama minions who seem to know very little.

    February 27, 2013 11:21 pm at 11:21 pm |
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