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. Obvious

    The wheels are coming off the Obama train in slow motion.

    February 27, 2013 11:30 pm at 11:30 pm |
  2. EyesWideOpen

    I wonder how different the political climate in this country would be if more journalists actually had integrity and weren't biased. Pravda is alive and well in the United States!

    February 27, 2013 11:31 pm at 11:31 pm |
  3. t3chn0ph0b3

    Let's just say Woodward knows how to steal the spotlight.

    February 27, 2013 11:32 pm at 11:32 pm |
  4. Indeigrl

    Not surprised at all. After all, our president cut his political teeth in Chicago. We saw snippets of Obama's petulant arrogance when he was under fire during debates with Romney. No doubt this is the guy Boehner gets behind closed doors, instead of the Kool Guy Celebrity with staged photo ops.
    Barack Obama has neither the temperament nor the negotiating skills required by his office. The electorate began to seriously turn against Bush during the Terri Schiavo debacle. Obama's honeymoon is just about over, will definitely be over when we finally find out what's in Obamacare. Now Obamacare taxes have kicked in, Democrats are backpedaling furiously since they see a repeat of 2010 backlash coming. Al Franken et all are trying to delay the medical device tax. Billions in ACA funding to be lost. HHS backed down this week on regulating HSAs out of existence. billions in ACA funding gone, since HSA holders premiums will not double to subsidize others as Dems originally planned. I would wager they will chicken out on the bone they threw to AARP: Community Rating,which prohibits insurance from charging seniors more than 3 times the price for young health people. Millions of Millennials, especially young men, will see their premiums double, and they will be very angrily forego insurance, pay the individual mandate tax, and be sure to vote in 2014 midterms. The more funding Democrats jettison to avoid getting their hair blown back in 2014, the better ACA's chances of EPIC failure.

    February 27, 2013 11:32 pm at 11:32 pm |
  5. Steve

    It's ok, it is just cute little cuddly Obama. He makes us feel so good, nothing he does will make us feel bad about ourselves....

    February 27, 2013 11:33 pm at 11:33 pm |
  6. client09

    yep white house will send out the PR team to cover up and make this go away, imagine if a GOP admin had said this...... politics as usual.

    February 27, 2013 11:34 pm at 11:34 pm |
  7. simplyput

    Threats and hatchets are the mo from the *dumb way* dems. Even when offered a scalpel there is no competent operation.

    February 27, 2013 11:34 pm at 11:34 pm |
  8. Jc

    As a conservative, I can't stand McCain, Bachman, McConnel, or anyone associated with the tea party. They completely embarrass the party. That being said, I've said all along that new tax increases were never part of the deal. In the original deal, Obama promised that if they got the tax increase on the wealthy he would cut spending by March. Now that March 1st is a day away, its more tax increases and no cuts. His cuts that are on his website coincide with the end of the Afghani war, which by the standard of the Iraqi war, he plans on reallocating, not giving back. It's impossible for liberals to see this, but Obama has been consistent on one thing.......not following through on his promises. The original debt ceiling debate, the interest rate debate, and the Bush era tax cuts are all prime examples where he promised the HOP that if they caved now he would produce in the future, which he did not. If we can't find a way to reduce spending now, we never will. Future cuts when spending is already slated to increase higher than the cuts isn't cuts. Again, liberals will never agree to this, but Obsma needs a reality check. There's no reason for him to be this shifty. And now that the GOP is tired of getting taken for a ride, they are calling his bluff, and its their fault. Maybe you should look within your party every once in a while. Obama has not earned the trust of the GOP, so open ended negotiations are not going to continue.

    February 27, 2013 11:34 pm at 11:34 pm |
  9. Bill

    This should surprise exactly no one.

    February 27, 2013 11:35 pm at 11:35 pm |
  10. Rogue351

    Well maybe, just maybe "top Obama administration" are getting as sick and tired of right wing journalists reading every possible negative connotation into EVERYTHING the White House does or says. It has been a smear campaign from the start and it has not let up for the last 5 years. However when a Wyoming elected official tells a concerned citizen, If you don't like the way we are doing things here in Wyoming, Move. It is no big deal. Imagine if Obama told all of you gun happy bible thump-in NRA members, we are going to pass gun control and if you don't like it, LEAVE.

    February 27, 2013 11:35 pm at 11:35 pm |
  11. BillyBob

    I am not surprised by this is the least bit. I think this reflects the attitude of most of our government. I know Obama is a hero to some people, but I think this proves he is just another politician like the rest of them. Power hungry and determined to have their way hell or high water.

    February 27, 2013 11:35 pm at 11:35 pm |
  12. wally

    I've not seen many who dare point out the inconsistencies of the emperor. Makes me a little afraid because no one else dares comment on this post.

    February 27, 2013 11:35 pm at 11:35 pm |
  13. /sighLOL

    So, he had a "threatening" e-mail that he wont disclose despite the fact that he is a journalist and that would is what they do... sounds like a lie to me, the proof is in the pudding and he aint got none in his bowl.

    February 27, 2013 11:35 pm at 11:35 pm |
  14. lessfrazier

    You can take the politician out of Chicago, but you can't take Chicago out of the politician.

    February 27, 2013 11:37 pm at 11:37 pm |
  15. Brian in DC

    Of course this is in the Ticker, open only for limited discussion. Can't have the responses not face deep scrutiny and/or veer from the WH authorized message. CNN is the punchline of journalism now, even MSNBC is higher in the ratings.

    February 27, 2013 11:37 pm at 11:37 pm |
  16. nuclear mike

    Who is surprised by the "bully" White HOuse after all that the White HOuse has covered up...transparency was promised. but never happened...just bullies in the White HOuse now.

    February 27, 2013 11:37 pm at 11:37 pm |
  17. IMeanReally

    The W.H. bullying a reporter that isn't kissing the ring of the POTUS? Naw. Can't be true. The 'tolerant' left acting in such a manner. Really? C'mon.

    February 27, 2013 11:38 pm at 11:38 pm |
  18. Dan

    Whether you voted for Obama or not, this ought to make your blood boil. Freedom of the press is part of the very bedrock we were founded on. I don't often like what the press says, but there should be no muzzle or threats made to the press by any branch of the government, Republican or Democrat. This is extremely concerning. We need to wake up and be vocal on this kind of behavior.

    February 27, 2013 11:39 pm at 11:39 pm |
  19. Mary Ann

    Whoa!!! Did they threaten to breaka his legs? Or worse???

    February 27, 2013 11:40 pm at 11:40 pm |
  20. Gregory

    Bob Woodward wants to be the center of attention again. Same 'old' Bob Woodward.

    February 27, 2013 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  21. ChrisM

    The senior President advisor told Bob that he would regret his story BECAUSE Bobs story was wrong. Not a threat to Bob

    February 27, 2013 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  22. Free_Market_Mafia

    OBAMA president of the Democratic party! Wake up America – Good intentions pave the road to hell! Unemployment at over 7.8%, $6Trillion dollars in debt in 4 short years, 8% tax increase on the middle class!

    February 27, 2013 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  23. Anonymous

    Woodward is a desperate old man trying to keep his job in a fading medium.Go away you have played the insider game way to many times.

    February 27, 2013 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  24. Name

    You can "regret" having said something not because someone hast Harnwege you but because you have realized that you were grossly wrong.

    February 27, 2013 11:41 pm at 11:41 pm |
  25. treblemaker

    Forty years later, he still rattles the gilded cage. I believe anything Woodward says, because he has nothing to prove.

    February 27, 2013 11:42 pm at 11:42 pm |
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