What did Bob Woodward actually claim about the White House?

In my view, Bob Woodward’s weekend article claiming Obama moved “the goal posts” by demanding new revenues to avert the sequester is just wrong on the basic facts and history, as Brian Beutler has detailed. But today’s dust up of the moment — which holds that Bob Woodward falsely suggested the White House threatened him over that op ed — strikes me as a good deal less clear cut.

The claim is that Woodward suggested that an email to him from the White House made him feel like he’d been threatened with White House retribution for telling a story the White House didn’t like — a suggestion that was revealed as bogus when the actual email exchange was released.

But it’s not clear to me that Woodward actually said what everyone is claiming he said.

The notion that Woodward accused the White House of threatening him originated with Politico. The web site reported on an email Woodward said he’d gotten from a senior White House official — Gene Sperling, it turns out — that Woodward supposedly saw as a threat. After the ensuing dust up, Politico published the full emails, which show a routine exchange, as argumentative exchanges between reporters and sources go.

It’s unclear to me, however, that Woodward was even saying he felt threatened, in the sense that the White House had vowed retribution against him. Politico quotes the email to Woodward as saying this: “I think you will regret staking out that claim.” Politico continued:

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.”

Politico says Woodward made it clear that he saw this as a threat. But Woodward himself didn’t say this. It’s true that Woodward suggested the White House had given him cause to be frightened by using the words “tremble, tremble.” But even here the meaning is unclear. Woodward could very well mean that he objects to the White House making reporters question their own judgment — making reporters fear getting it wrong — rather than seriously engaging with what the reporter is claiming. That’s not the same as saying the White House threatened him with consequences. Indeed, the softer interpretation makes more sense given that the context here is Woodward describing how a “young reporter” might receive this message.

On CNN last night, Woodward made similar claims. “It was said very clearly, `You will regret doing this,’” he said. “It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters, ‘you’re going to regret doing something that you believe in.’” This, again, strikes me as inconclusive. It’s not clear to me he’s saying anything other than, “the White House shouldn’t try to make reporters fear getting it wrong, and should instead engage them.”

To be clear, this isn’t meant as a defense of Woodward. If my alternate interpretation is right, it is still an overwrought response to Sperling’s email. But Woodward isn’t necessarily alleging that he felt threatened.

To be clear, I don’t know exactly what Woodward meant. Perhaps he did mean to imply that he felt the threat of retribution. But this just isn’t conclusively clear. It seems equally plausible that Woodward could have intended the more innocuous interpretation, but made word hash of it.

What really may have happened here is that Politico created the idea (perhaps understandably, given what a mess Woodward’s claims were) that he had accused the White House of threatening retribution — and then debunked its own story the next day.

Also on The Plum Line

The Morning Plum: How both sides really view the sequester