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. CaEd

    Mr. Woodward has been around Washington long enough to know an apology from a threat.

    While it is a possibility that Mr Woodward is generating some smoke (ie a career enhancing controversy) you only need look at his decades of work to see that is not his usual way of doing things and I don;t believe this the case here. He received a threat of some form from someone in the White House.

    Telling the truth as he sees it seems to get, and keep, his reputation going.

    February 27, 2013 11:42 pm at 11:42 pm |
  2. MichaelVA

    I am a die-hard liberal and a long-time Obama supporter. I'm not really bothered to hear that it was Obama that came up with the sequester idea – I know that the House GOP had him in a corner with the debt ceiling fiasco. I hold that against the GOP. But I must say that I am very disappointed to know that Obama lied to us all on national TV when he said that it was Congress', not his idea. Really, Barack? You actually found it preferable to lie to us all than to admit that an unpopular idea was your own? And then your people threatened a reporter that dared call you out on it? I must say that, if this all turns out to be true (and it sure seems to be), I will have a hard time defending Barack Obama again.

    February 27, 2013 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  3. Cee Word

    Oops – our point across

    February 27, 2013 11:43 pm at 11:43 pm |
  4. Sam Salma

    What an icon, reduced to a bitter old man. I am not talking about McCain. I am talking about Bob Woodward!

    February 27, 2013 11:44 pm at 11:44 pm |
  5. Pendy

    Threatened by the White House? What do you expect from a bunch of extorsionist Chicago thugs?

    February 27, 2013 11:44 pm at 11:44 pm |
  6. Ammo80

    Bob, don't let the scare tactics of the Obama administration upset youl. When the truth is spoken, those who don't want to hear it will always lash out at the messenger. Be of good courage and continue to report the good news, just like you did with the Watergate scandal. Cast your fears and concerns upon the Lord because cares for you.

    February 27, 2013 11:44 pm at 11:44 pm |
  7. Clark

    Is anyone really surprised about this? The Obama administration is one of the most secretive, protective Presidencies that I can remember. They really dont care at all about co-operating with the media, or any other political party! I cant wait for Obama's sequester to kick it... Truthfully its the first good thing he has done since getting to the White House. Finally, he is getting a clue and stopping spending. Reality may suck, but this country cannot keep up its Credit Card fun spending.

    February 27, 2013 11:45 pm at 11:45 pm |
  8. Emile_Mervin

    Although a threat could be veiled inside a warning, the context of the conversation begs the question: how the heck could Woodward not know the difference between a threat and a warning?
    Woodward may be drawing too much attention to himself on an issue that he has spent time building a case on for his reportage, so that HE becomes the news instead of the issue at hand!

    February 27, 2013 11:45 pm at 11:45 pm |
  9. B

    Bob Woodward is a seemingly intelligent man. But "you will regret this" is not a threat. If it's followed by an actual threat, it is a threat. But, if they said "you will regret this", that can also be forseen as a prophecy.....that he would actually regret saying it because it's not factual.....which they explained to him.

    February 27, 2013 11:46 pm at 11:46 pm |
  10. Branden

    Boo-hoo, Woodward.

    February 27, 2013 11:46 pm at 11:46 pm |
  11. Tracy

    When will the media wake up and quit covering for Obama and start reporting the facts!!!

    February 27, 2013 11:46 pm at 11:46 pm |
  12. Kem

    Bob is afraid to say the name, self censorship and of course Obama could never have anything to do with this. Wake up CNN, this administration has been badgering and threatening anyone in the press that isn't their lap dog for over 4 years now. Glad your finally getting a taste of Chicago politics up close and personal.

    February 27, 2013 11:47 pm at 11:47 pm |
  13. America is Finished

    The US government is a crime syndicate. Why does it surprise anyone when they act like one?

    February 27, 2013 11:47 pm at 11:47 pm |
  14. QuestioningQE2

    Ah, where is the email from the 'senior Obama administration official'? There is not even a direct quote from the purported email in this article. If this guy really was threatened in an email, it seems he could at least make that email available, otherwise there really isn't anything to discuss here. Remember CNN, you are supposed to keep up the myth of being a 'liberal news media', and you can't do that with complete mindless drivel–the usual mindless drivel has been working just fine.

    February 27, 2013 11:48 pm at 11:48 pm |
  15. Allan

    This is the way of the new O admin, we will get even...............its my way or else...........we need to drop the mucho thing and get to work...........

    February 27, 2013 11:48 pm at 11:48 pm |
  16. Larry

    This is what I think should happen in a sequestor....
    The total amount of money to be cut should come from the following.
    1) Foreign Aid. Why should our citizens suffer, while we take the money that could "save their" jobs, and give it to Israel to produce Jewish Sesame Street (not a lie) or to other countries for similar programs.
    2) Any existing corporate subsidies to companies liek Burger King, Mc Donalds, etc. to support overseas enterprise.
    3) Salaries for Senate, Congress, etc.
    4) Then, the "domestic" programs.

    When will this madness end?

    February 27, 2013 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  17. Gary John

    This is HUGE news. If it was a Republican government making these comments, the Liberal media would be all over it.

    February 27, 2013 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  18. Lauren M.

    Maybe Woodward doing some "real reporting" will encourage some of the younger and less-experienced reporters to critically cover the WH without fear of retribution or alienation. Members of the press owe it to the public to honestly report on BOTH sides of the aisle...something that the majority of the media has refused to do for the past 4 years.

    February 27, 2013 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  19. pbernasc

    Who is the pathetic loser at the white house stupid enough to think he can get away with threatening Woodward?
    What is he .. a freaking brain dead conservative who manage to be hired by the WH?

    February 27, 2013 11:49 pm at 11:49 pm |
  20. Hal Atosis

    When the guy who brought a Republican President down is ratting on a Democratic one, there really is something rotten in DC

    February 27, 2013 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  21. I Love A Man In Uniform

    A hack, propped up by the CIA to help engineer the coup d'etat of Nixon. Not that I think Obama's a saint, mind you.

    February 27, 2013 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  22. Monomachos

    Eerily similar to the Nixon years – the WH trying to control the press. Good for Woodward!

    February 27, 2013 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  23. BigTBone

    Wait, we're keeping track of goalpost moving?

    The right has theirs somewhere in the parking lot by now...

    February 27, 2013 11:50 pm at 11:50 pm |
  24. Mech

    I guess Woodward still needs the news on himself after all these years since Watergate. It used to be that news was reported by professionals, now they seem to want to be the news.

    February 27, 2013 11:51 pm at 11:51 pm |
  25. JLO

    The WH should have had someone one refute Woodward's dramatics. As usual they allowed the media to walk all over them. They never learn.

    February 27, 2013 11:52 pm at 11:52 pm |
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