Veteran White House Reporters: Woodward Threat Claim “Overblown” And “Misinterpreted”

Veteran White House correspondents and political scribes dispute claims that a White House aide threatened Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward in a recent email exchange, calling that characterization “overblown.”

media firestorm has followed last night's Politico report that Woodward had received a “veiled threat” from White House economic adviser Gene Sperling for the journalist's reporting on the pending spending cuts known as the sequester, based on a snippet of a Sperling email Woodward provided the paper. The full context of Sperling's comment, released by Politico the next day, made it clear to even conservative observers that no threat had been intended.

“It doesn't seem threatening to me at all, it seems to me based on the email exchange that I read, that it was not threatening, it came at the tail end of a very friendly message, it seemed like it was saying 'you are making a mistake,'” said Bill Plante, CBS News White House correspondent and former president of the White House Correspondents Association. “It does not seem to me to be a threat of any kind in the sense that retaliation is promised.”

In the email exchange about the sequestration issue, which followed an angry phone exchange for which Sperling apologized, the aide indicated to Woodward that if he reported the president had been “moving the goal post” related to revenue in the negotiations, Woodward would “regret staking out that claim.”

In an interview posted Wednesday night, Woodward characterized the exchange as a threat, according to Politico:

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.'”

But the full context of the emails, released by Politico the next day, casts doubt on the claim that Woodward had been threatened. In the email, Sperling had stated, “I do truly believe you should rethink your comment about saying that [President 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.” Woodward replied to that email in part, “I also welcome your personal advice. I am listening.”

Former and current White House scribes and political reporters disagreed with the characterization that Woodward had been threatened after seeing the email exchange, with most saying Woodward's claims of a threat were overblown.

“No, it does not seem like a threat to me, but it should be sound advice to both parties that they should not have serious conversations on email,” said Marvin Kalb, former host of Meet the Press and a 30-year veteran Washington reporter. “Face-to-face makes much more sense. I know emails are the means of communication these days, but we tend to write emails very quickly, not with the greatest care, and end up saying things we really don't quite mean. Emails can easily lead to misunderstandings. Here clearly was one example.”

Roger Simon, a Politico columnist and veteran White House reporter, agreed.

“If it was a threat, it was one of the friendliest and most respectful threats a White House aide has ever issued,” he said in an email. “I have enormous respect for Bob Woodward's reporting. He is certainly one the greatest reporters of modern times. But perhaps he should have just put the email out there without characterizing it and let people draw their own conclusions.” 

Jennifer Loven, who covered the White House for eight years for Associated Press from 2002 to 2010, also found no threat.

“Not that I know the whole story, but from what is out there it didn't sound like a threat to me,” she wrote in an email, also describing it as: “nothing more than normal - not threatening, not unusual, not shocking, perhaps even helpful - back-and-forth between reporters and White House sources.”       

Edwin Chen, a former Bloomberg White House reporter and past White House Correspondents Association president, said Woodward may have assumed too much.

“I think 'regret' in this context CAN be interpreted as threatening--but not necessarily so,” he said via email. “That's because it also could mean that the speaker is implying that the reporter might be proven wrong and for that reason 'regret'.”

For Joe Klein of Time magazine, a longtime political scribe, the simple answer to whether it was a threat is, “No.”

Asked to elaborate, Klein emailed: “I've known Gene for 20 years. He's frustrated me at times; voices have been raised. Usually, though, he gives good this case, I think he was trying to tell Bob that he'd regret printing something that Gene believed was an analytical overreach. Bob obviously believed it wasn't. And, it seems to me, he misinterpreted Gene's words as a threat.”

Julie Mason, former Washington Examiner White House scribe and current Sirius XM radio host, stated, "I think the threat aspect is overblown," while noting that Woodward would hardly be the first reporter to receive an angry phone call from a White House aide.