“Woodward at war,” was the headline Politico's Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei attached to their February 27 article playing up Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward's claim that a senior White House official had threatened him over email regarding Woodward's reporting on the origins of the budget sequestration. The Politico report on Woodward's “major-league brushback” caught fire in the press and prompted allegations of White House intimidation. However, the email chain -- which Politico published the following morning -- shows that the claims of threats and intimidation by the White House are, at best, wildly overblown, and that Politico helped hype a bogus allegation by Woodward absent the full context.
The original February 27 Politico piece featured a short clip of Allen and VandeHei's “hourlong interview” with Woodward “around the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington's powerful have spilled their secrets.” In that clip, Woodward reads from an email he received from a top White House official, later revealed to be economic advisor Gene Sperling. As Woodward puts it, Sperling did “something that I think it is important for people to understand. He says, you know, 'I think you will regret staking out that claim,'” referring to Woodward's assertion that the president was “moving the goal posts” in negotiations to avert sequestration.
Allen and VandeHei wrote:
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.'”
“They have to be willing to live in the world where they're challenged,” Woodward continued in his calm, instantly recognizable voice. “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 email saying, 'You're going to regret this.' You know, tremble, tremble. I don't think it's the way to operate.”
It's not clear whether Allen or VandeHei had access to Woodward's full email exchange with Woodward -- as they put it, Woodward "[dug] into one of his famous folders" to read the offending excerpts to them, meaning that at the very least they had the opportunity to demand to see more from that exchange before publishing Woodward's claims. From all appearances, though, Allen and VandeHei's initial reporting on the email exchange was based solely on what Woodward told them about it. Their “exclusive” follow-up article on the email exchange indicates as much: “POLITICO's 'Behind the Curtain' column last night quoted Bob Woodward as saying that a senior White House official has told him in an email he would 'regret' questioning White House statements on the origins of sequestration.”
The emails reproduced in that article, however, don't support the idea that Sperling had leveled a threat at Woodward, or that Woodward himself felt threatened by Sperling. In his email to Woodward, Sperling apologizes for “raising my voice in our conversation today,” writing: “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.” Woodward excised that highlighted portion when he read the email to Allen and VandeHei.
After laying out the administration case on the sequestration wrangling, Sperling concludes:
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.
Then there's Woodward's response to Sperling, which pretty well debunks the notion that Woodward felt threatened at the time:
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.
VandeHei himself went on MSNBC's Morning Joe the morning after writing the “Woodward at war” article and downplayed Woodward's allegations. “My take on it, I've been doing this for 20 years,” VandeHei said. “I find press secretaries, it's their job to get in our face, it's their job to intimidate. It's our job to brush it aside and just write what we need to write and not really care if someone in the White House is huffing and puffing.” After co-host Mika Brzezinski pointed out that “the word 'threat' is pretty serious,” VandeHei laughed it off. “We get threatened all the time.”
Given Vandehei's statements, it's unclear why Politico would breathlessly and uncritically hype Woodward's allegations in the first place.