It's a Washington spectacle that enthralls the capital's insiders: beholding another White House at war with star journalist Bob Woodward.
Woodward told CNN Wednesday night that President Obama and his advisers are distorting some fundamental facts in the current budget battle over the "sequester." This is the Washington insiders' name for automatic spending cuts scheduled to go into effect Friday, unless the president and Congress make a last-minute deal to avoid them.
White House officials dispute Woodward's account, but, in his own bit of gamesmanship, the Washington Post journalist challenged the administration to send a representative to CNN to debate him about the issues. No one accepted his offer.
Despite Obama's current objections, sequestration was an idea devised by White House officials and approved by Obama, Woodward says. And under the plan endorsed by Obama and Congress, it would involve only spending cuts, not tax increases, according to Woodward, who helped to break the Watergate scandal and whose reporting was a big reason for the resignation of President Richard Nixon.
Now Obama says he favors both tax increases and spending cuts to resolve the current impasse, which Woodward says amounts to moving the "goal posts." Woodward told CNN that he isn't saying that Obama broke any laws the way Nixon did, but he argues that Obama and his aides are misstating their own dominant role in the sequestration saga.
The original plan was based on the premise that sequestration would cause such onerous cuts that leaders in Washington wouldn't let it happen. But with a day to go before those cuts are triggered, there is still no deal to avoid $85 billion in spending reductions.
Woodward told Politico that he also considers White House officials thin skinned and willing to resort to threats to get their way.
When he called to inform the White House of his critical assessment of Obama's role in sequestration, which first appeared in the Washington Post last weekend, a senior adviser "yelled at me for about a half hour," he said.
And in a follow-up E-mail, the aide wrote to Woodward: "I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. You're focusing on a few specific trees that give a very wrong impression of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here….I think you will regret staking out that claim."
Woodward saw that last sentence as a "veiled threat," Politico said, and he added: "I don't think it's the way to operate." Woodward expressed concern that White House threats might intimidate other journalists, especially younger and less experienced ones, into softening their coverage.
Since Watergate, when he was a junior reporter, Woodward has risen to the top of his profession, in part because of his deeply reported books and articles about presidents and their administrations.
Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Facebook and Twitter.