Woodward said in interviews with Politico and CNN that when he informed the White House he was writing a story critical of the White House’s handling of a debate over the origin of the cuts, known as sequestration, the official reacted angrily.
The aide “yelled at me for about a half hour”, Woodward told Politico, and then followed up the tirade with an email: “I apologise 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.”
Politico reported that Woodward saw the statement as a veiled threat.
“I’ve tangled with lots of these people,” said the journalist, who established his reputation by breaking the story of the Watergate break-in under President Richard Nixon and has written a series of bestselling books about Washington politics.
“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,’” Woodward said. “You know, tremble, tremble. I don’t think it’s the way to operate.”
Some $85bn (€65bn) in spending cuts are due to go into effect today unless Congress acts, and there is practically no movement toward preventing them. President Barack Obama has scheduled a meeting with congressional leaders today, but little is expected of the encounter.
The president has crisscrossed the country in recent weeks to draw attention to the inconveniences and problems from the cuts, which economists say could shave 0.6 percentage points off of already anaemic US growth.
While the president conducts that campaign, the spat over what Woodward calls the “paternity” of the sequester has proven a distracting sideshow to the fiscal battle.
The administration has sought to counter charges by Republicans that the sequestration cuts were proposed by Obama administration officials.
Woodward’s book The Price of Politics is a fly-on- the-wall account of the negotiations in 2011 that ended with a deal to raise the nation’s debt limit. As part of the deal, both sides agreed to make additional efforts to reduce the national budget deficit, and proposed the sequester as an alternative so unappealing that it would force the administration and congressional Republicans to find common ground.
That deal proved elusive and both sides are currently trading blame for the sequestration cuts.
Woodward said in an article in The Washington Post that the president and his chief of staff at the time, current Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, were wrong in initially claiming last year that the sequester was the Republicans’ idea.
“Obama personally approved of the plan for Lew and (Rob) Nabors to propose the sequester to Senate majority leader Harry Reid,” Woodward said. “They did so at 2.30pm Jul 27, 2011, according to interviews with two senior White House aides who were directly involved.” Nabors was then the White House’s chief liaison to Congress and is now deputy chief of staff.
The administration has argued both sides agreed the terms of the sequester.
The BuzzFeed news website identified the official who tangled with Woodward as Gene Sperling, head of the National Economic Council. The White House did not respond to a request to confirm the identity of the official. A White House official said no threat was intended by the comment.