The Nature of the Threat

Reporting on Politics and Policy.
Feb. 28 2013 6:05 AM

The Nature of the Threat

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Bob Woodward

Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP/Getty Images

Like any red-blooded American citizen who loves bold text, I get my news from the Drudge Report. Last night, this was the site's lead story.

Screen shot 2013-02-28 at 1.18.26 AM

That's a scary headline, and a scarier picture of Barack Obama! The linked story was less scary—it was a Business Insider recap of Woodward's appearance on CNN, in which the Washington Post reporter said "that a 'very senior person' at the White House warned him in an email that he would 'regret doing this.'"

But what is "this"? To learn the answer I had to click over to "Woodward at War," the latest in Politico's "Behind the Curtain" series. Woodward, sitting at "the Georgetown dining room table where so many generations of Washington’s powerful have spilled their secrets," told Mike Allen and Jim VandeHei the backstory of his recent column on sequestration. Before he ran it, he called "a senior White House official"—fair warning, he'd be "question[ing] President Barack Obama’s account of how sequestration came about." The aide "yelled" at Woodward for a half hour. And then:

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.

But that's three versions of the quote, and only one of them is verbatim: "I think you will regret staking out that claim." According to Ben Smith, the source was White House economic adviser Gene Sperling, who makes frequent appearances in The Price of Politics, Woodward's book about the debt fight. Sperling was in the mix when the White House "decided to propose using language from the 1985 Gramm-Rudman-Hollings deficit reduction law"—i.e., sequestration—in the debt deal. You could interpret Sperling's comment as a threat, or you could interpret it this way: Woodward was focusing on the wrong stuff, and he'd end up looking like a fool. (I've asked the White House for more about the email, hopefully for the whole text, but that's a long shot.)

You hear that kind of bravado fairly often from flacks and sources. During the Chuck Hagel drama, when conservatives could (and did!) accuse me of carrying water for the White House, I was getting brushback from the White House. When I asked one White House aide whether there'd be answers to some fresh questions from Lindsey Graham, my source asked "What does it matter to you?" and said I was shilling for the Dump Hagel movement, and otherwise ignored the question. When Ben Shapiro asked the White House to respond to an allegation that "Friends of Hamas" backed Hagel, a spokesman hung up on him. Tug-of-war with flacks isn't the highest calling in journalism, but it exists, and it's only as threatening as you make it. (I responded to my own White House brush-off by reporting out the "Friends of Hamas" rumor. I swear, I won't dine out on that micro-scoop forever.)

But the idea that the White House is scared and lashing out at Woodward is catnip for conservatives. Breitbart.com (of course!) captured the zeitgeist, arguing that the media's "palace guards" were "playing defense for the White House" by bashing Woodward. This article contains two sentences about me, and two sneaky misrepresentations, but I'll just relegate that to a footnote.* The point is that it venerates Woodward:

All of these reporters combined might equal one tenth a Bob Woodward in the journalistic pantheon; the notion that their treatment at the hands of press flacks in any way reflects the general or appropriate treatment of someone like Woodward is absurd on its face.

But this is problem with the whole Woodward-vs.-Obama circus. Conservatives conflate a Woodward scoop with a Woodward opinion. Reporters accept the scoop but challenge the opinion.

The scoop is that White House negotiators first dreamed up sequestration as a "trigger" in any debt limit deal. On July 12, 2011, according to Woodward's book, Gene Sperling suggested to congressional leaders that "the form of the automatic sequester would punish both sides," and "we'd have to September to avoid any sequester." On July 27, then-White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew and negotiator Rob Nabors told Harry Reid that sequestration was their "idea" for a trigger, full-stop. This information didn't appear in previous debt limit tick-tocks. The president and Lew would later deny it, using language that could be described charitably as a dodge and less charitably. Point to Woodward. I don't know that any reporters now deny this.

The opinion is that the White House is "moving the goalposts" when it demands revenue, or anything but cuts, in any sequestration fix. Lots of reporters covered the debt limit fight. Many of them work at the Washington Post. None of them have come out behind this argument, for two reasons. One: During negotiations, it was clear that both sides were open to something other than cuts. Here's Woodward from the book, again, on that July 12 meeting.

"We'd have to September to avoid any sequester," [said Sperling].
"Then we could use a medium or big deal to force tax reform," Obama said optimistically.
"If this is a trigger for tax reform," Boehner said, "this could be worth discussing. But as a budget tool, it's too complicated. I'm very nervous about this."
"This would be an enforcement mechanism," Obama said.

Before the deal was inked, both sides hoped to replace sequestration—the trigger—with a tax reform deal. In the Budget Control Act that was eventually signed, the language was clear: A joint committee could replace the cuts with a larger amount of deficit reduction.

Now you see why Sperling might tell Woodward that he's going to roll snake eyes on this story. Woodward's analysis—that any revenue would defile the spirit of the deal Obama signed—is challenged by Woodward's own reporting. And this is what conservatives miss when they venerate Woodward and trash his critics. They're staging a battle of prestige versus power, Woodward-vs.-Obama. If you don't trust Woodward, you're refusing to trust a journalist.

But that's not the choice! The question is whether Woodward's opinion, which was the only new thing in his column last week, is proven beyond a doubt by the historical record. And it isn't. Journalists are fallible, and their opinions are debatable, but the record and the legislation is there for anyone to check.

And after they check it, the meaning is still open to interpretation. The big knock on Woodward's current critics (I expect to stop being one pretty soon, because this issue is so small) is that they're shilling for the White House or refusing to Speak Truth to Power. But the idea that sequestration must consist entirely of cuts because Obama proposed it—the Obamaquester—lines up with the House Republican narrative of the past few months. Defending the House majority's version of the story isn't Speaking Truth to Power, either. The House and the Senate control the appropriations process, but for some reason a focus on the House or a demand that Boehner do something is seen as pro-White House bias. Why is that?

UPDATE, 8:45 a.m.: Politico publishes the email exchange, which reflects better on Sperling than the "you'll regret this!" splash page.

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.

Woodward responds in kind: "You do not ever have to apologize to me." High crimes, misdemeanors, etc.

*The Breitbart item claims that I tweeted "'theory: Woodward is trolling,' then added via retweet that the whole situation was 'boring.'" Not quite. My joke theory was "Woodward is trolling @pareene," specifically, meaning that he was trying to irritiate the Salon writer who's been attacking him for years. My retweet was of a non-politico named Amy Salvucci, who tweeted "Bob Woodward story makes twitter boring." I just thought it was funny to see a regular human who didn't breathe heavy about politics popping up on my feed, asking what the hell everyone was talking about. The sheer tonnage of stuff I posted about the story probably settled the question of whether I found this dull. I would have explained this to the Breitbart reporter, but he never contacted me.

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

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