Did the White House Threaten Bob Woodward?

The E-mail exchange raises more questions about the reporter than the Obama administration

By + More
This June 11, 2012, file photo shows former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward speaking during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate in Washington.
This June 11, 2012, file photo shows former Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward speaking during an event to commemorate the 40th anniversary of Watergate in Washington.

So is the Obama administration going to the mattresses against iconic Washington Post columnist Bob Woodward? Is that a Predator drone I see circling over a certain Georgetown residence? OK everyone, take a deep breath and back away from the crazy train. Looking at the exchange in full gives the impression that at best Woodward is being oversensitive and at worst outright disingenuous.

Politico's Jim VandeHei and Mike Allen reported last night and this morning that Woodward had a phone call with Gene Sperling, the director of the White House Economic Council, in which Sperling raised his voice at the reporter. The administration aide subsequently sent Woodward an E-mail that upset the reporter. Here's the in initial Politico account of the exchange:

Digging into one of his famous folders, Woodward said the tirade was followed by a page-long email from the aide, one of the four or five administration officials most closely involved in the fiscal negotiations with the Hill. "I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today," the official typed. "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 repeated the last sentence, making clear he saw it as a veiled threat. " 'You'll regret.' Come on," he said. "I think if Obama himself saw the way they're dealing with some of this, he would say, 'Whoa, we don't tell any reporter 'you're going to regret challenging us.'

[ Check out our editorial cartoons on President Obama.]

Even given this account, the notion that Sperling was threatening Woodward fails to pass the logic test. Does anyone think that Bob Woodward of all people is a likely target to quail before White House finger wagging? What's the theory of the intimidation case? That Woodward, who when he was a complete unknown reporter pursued Watergate in the face of, as his publisher put it, "unveiled threats and harassment" would, as perhaps the most famous reporter of his time, fold up in the face of an ambiguous threat? The most plausible scenario is that Woodward would write up any threats and put them on the front page of the Post.

Which raises the question: Why is it that the only place on the Post's website that the "threat" story appears is on the utterly-lacking-credibility blog of GOP water carrier Jennifer Rubin? If Woodward thinks "it's important for people to understand" the incident, as he told Politico, why did he gift the story to a rival publication rather than run it in the Post? It's not like he got the E-mail moments before Allen and VandeHei walked into his house—Sperling sent it on February 22. If the White House was trying to bully a legendary Washington Post reporter, why didn't the Washington Post break the story rather than get scooped five days later?

[ See a collection of political cartoons on sequestration and the fiscal cliff.]

Even Woodward implicitly acknowledged to the Politico reporters the implausibility of his being menaced. "I've tangled with lots of these people. But suppose there's a young reporter who's only had a couple of years—or 10 years'—experience and the White House is sending him an E-mail saying, 'You're going to regret this.'" Except that the E-mail didn't go to a young reporter. Instead it went to Woodward. It's not like Sperling didn't know with whom he was communicating. ( "Oh my gosh, it was that Bob Woodward? I thought it was a copy desk intern with the same name.") Does this White House have a reputation for dealing in a heavy handed manner with the media? Yes, and it is likely well-deserved. (Question: Which was the last media-friendly White House?) But does that make Sperling's E-mail a scandalous example of bullying? The threat theory just doesn't pass the laugh test—and that's before you read the E-mails, which Politico published this morning.

Here's the full Sperling E-mail:

Bob:

I apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today. My bad. I do understand your problems with a couple of our statements in the fall—but feel on the other hand that you focus on a few specific trees that gives a very wrong perception of the forest. But perhaps we will just not see eye to eye here.

But I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying saying that Potus 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 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. It was an accepted part of the understanding—from the start. Really. It was assumed by the Rs on the Supercommittee that came right after: it was assumed in the November-December 2012 negotiations. There may have been big disagreements over rates and ratios—but that it was supposed to be replaced by entitlements and revenues of some form is not controversial. (Indeed, the discretionary savings amount from the Boehner-Obama negotiations were locked in in BCA: the sequester was just designed to force all back to table on entitlements and revenues.)

I agree there are more than one side to our first disagreement, but again think this latter issue is diffferent. Not out to argue and argue on this latter point. Just my sincere advice. Your call obviously.

My apologies again for raising my voice on the call with you. Feel bad about that and truly apologize.

Gene

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

That's 297 words of apology and advice with the "threat" tucked in as friendly advice. As bullying goes it achieves a special level of ephemeral subtlety.

Woodward's reply, again from Politico:

Gene: You do not ever have to apologize to me. You get wound up because you are making your points and you believe them. This is all part of a serious discussion. I for one welcome a little heat; there should more given the importance. I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening. I know you lived all this. My partial advantage is that I talked extensively with all involved. I am traveling and will try to reach you after 3 pm today. Best, Bob

[ See a collection of political cartoons on Congress.]

That Woodward replied cordially can be written off to his being disingenuous with someone he wants to keep as a source (it's not personal, it's business, as they say). But given the full context of the exchange it seems he's being disingenuous with more people than Gene Sperling.

Update: The Post's media blogger Erik Wemple, takes a long look at l'affaire Sper-wood. His conclusion:

The full text of the e-mail exchange has been leaked and is available at Politico. Word for word, it is loyal to Woodward’s recitation. But its tone is toothless. ...

So much for the White House “threatening” Woodward, as the Internet would have us believe. Nor does the you-will-regret-this language look like part of a communications policy on part of the White House. It looks like a reporter and a source disagreeing on some really tedious, really important policy points.