By Mark Felsenthal
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A prominent Washington journalist said in interviews on Wednesday a senior White House official warned him he would "regret" publishing a story challenging the White House's account of how the idea for automatic spending cuts originated.
Bob 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 apologize for raising my voice in our conversation today," the official wrote Woodward. "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 best selling 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 $85 billion in spending cuts are due to go into effect Friday unless Congress acts, and with the deadline approaching there is practically no movement toward preventing them. President Barack Obama has scheduled a meeting with congressional leaders on Friday, 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 anemic U.S. growth.
While the president has been conducting 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 on Friday 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 2:30 p.m. July 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 that both sides agreed to the terms of the sequester and has pointed to comments at the time from House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican, that he was for the most part satisfied with the deal that spawned the arrangement.
Woodward's account of his recent testy exchange with the White House points to continued sensitivity over the issue of whose idea the sequester was.
A White House official said in an emailed response to Reuters that no threat was intended by the comment.
"The email from the aide was sent to apologize for voices being raised in their previous conversation," the aide said. "The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more."
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.
News of the exchange drew instant reaction from Washington insiders on Twitter, much of poking fun at the war of words.
"My amateur advice: stop cooperating with Woodward in the first place," wrote Neera Tanden, the president of the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress think tank and a former Obama campaign advisor.
"Hey, guess what? All of you will talk to Woodward for his next book, too," wrote Tony Fratto of Hamilton Place Strategies and a former White House official under President George W. Bush.
(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal; editing by Jackie Frank)