By MICHAEL FALCONE ( @michaelpfalcone )
CLASH OF THE TITANS: Veteran journalist Bob Woodward is embroiled in an extraordinary public clash with the White House over his reporting on the sequester, reports ABC's Devin Dwyer. Woodward has been making the rounds accusing a "very senior person" in the administration of threatening him last week ahead of an op-ed he later published in the Washington Post attributing the idea for the automatic spending cuts to President Obama. The blitz drew a harsh rebuke from former senior Obama adviser David Plouffe Wednesday night: "Watching Woodward last 2 days is like imagining my idol Mike Schmidt facing live pitching again. Perfection gained once is rarely repeated," he wrote on Twitter. http://abcn.ws/XcphXC
BACKSTORY: In the column at the center of the storm, Woodward writes the White House has been deliberately disingenuous about its role in the sequester, and accused Obama of "moving the goal posts" by insisting Republicans agree to new tax revenue as part of any substitute for the sequester. Woodward's report has rankled administration officials, particularly since it undermines the narrative the White House has been pushing ahead the March 1 sequester deadline. Democrats claim the automatic cuts were mutually agreed upon and never intended to be enacted, making Obama's demand for new revenue a legitimate one. Republicans claim the sequester was Obama's idea and that any replacement plan was to be entirely cuts. Now, Woodward alleges that he was bullied even ahead of publishing his report. He told Politico Wednesday that one Obama aide "yelled at me for about a half hour" and in an email message delivered a veiled threat. "It was said very clearly: 'you will regret doing this,'" Woodward told CNN. "I'm not going to say [who], a very senior person. It makes me very uncomfortable to have the White House telling reporters you're going to regret doing something you believe in." http://abcn.ws/XcphXC
WOODWARD AND SPERLING: BuzzFeed's Ben Smith, citing unnamed sources, first reported last night that the official with whom Woodward had the tense exchange was the director of the White House Economic Council Gene Sperling. BuzzFeed's story: http://bit.ly/Z0ZXl1 And this morning, Politico released the e-mails in question: http://politi.co/YBLRof
ABC'S JONATHAN KARL: A senior White House official acknowledges that a top aide (now known to be Gene Sperling) told the Washington Post's Bob Woodward that he would regret what he wrote, but insists there was no threat. "Of course no threat was intended," the White House official tells ABC News. "The note suggested that Mr. Woodward would regret the observation he made regarding the sequester because that observation was inaccurate, nothing more." Furthermore, the White House adds: "Mr. Woodward responded to this aide's email in a friendly matter." Woodward's "friendly" response came on Saturday. He didn't come forward and call the initial email a threat until late Wednesday.
ABC's RICK KLEIN: Who thinks this will end well? The White House's escalating war with Bob Woodward has major ramifications for all involved - not least the president whom Woodward believes wouldn't approve of his own aides' tactics. President Obama has chosen to make two major points in the sequester stand-off: That the pain is going to be awful, and that it's all Republicans' fault. Woodward calls the latter into question, with the reporting he's decided to aggressively and publicly defend. As for the former, with Mayor Michael Bloomberg giving a rhetorical eye-roll to the White House, and Education Secretary Arne Duncan on record exaggerating about teacher pink slips that haven't been issued, let's just say credulity is being strained.
ABC'S ELIZABETH HARTFIELD: Washington has its eye on the sequester this week, but the real political action will actually be taking place thousands of miles away in Rome. The next big election isn't in 2016, or even 2014 - it will take place (probably) within the next several weeks. The cardinals have begun to descend upon Vatican City and soon the conclave to choose the next Pope will begin. And while the politics of electing a Pope are, on the surface, very different from the politics of electing an American president (no polling, no ads, no ground game strategies) if you dig a little deeper, you'll find the two have many similarities. The insiders hold a large amount of power, and they almost always pick one of their own. Social issues like abortion and same-sex marriage are hot button issues. And the public's general interest level generally tends to increase when you throw in sex scandals. Most importantly, the electoral body is deciding not just on a person to lead a bureaucratic system, they're choosing the face they will show to the world, and they're making a decision that will tell you everything about that group's values and visions at this point in history. So, as we keep our eye on the sequester maneuvering, remember to take an occasional break and check in on the political intrigue across the Atlantic.
ABC's JORDAN FABIAN: An Obama administration official passes this along about an announcement President Obama plans to make today: "The President intends to designate Edith Ramirez to be the Chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Ramirez has served as a Commissioner of the FTC since April 5, 2010. The President is grateful for her service on behalf of the American people and he looks forward to her continued work as she steps in to lead the FTC. Ramirez brings decades of experience and will continue fulfill the FTC's mission by protecting consumers from fraud, deception, and unfair business practices as well as maintaining competition to prevent anticompetitive mergers and business practices in the marketplace."
WHAT WE'RE READING
"MAYOR BLOOMBERG POUNDS D.C. PAVEMENT ON GUN CONTROL," by Roll Call's Abby Livingston. "New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg took his victory lap to Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to advocate for his pet political issue: gun control. Fresh off his super PAC's victory in an Illinois special election, Bloomberg is moving on to the rest of Congress as his next target, urging members to pass legislation on background checks. … Bloomberg's super PAC claimed victory for boosting its preferred candidate to victory in Tuesday's 2nd District primary. Independence USA PAC spent $2.5 million to support Cook County Chief Administrator Robin Kelly, now the Democratic nominee and likely the next member from the heavily Democratic district. … Both the mayor and his PAC kept quiet on the specifics of where his super PAC would spend big this cycle. But one Bloomberg source described the Illinois race as 'a little skirmish' compared to what would come later in the cycle. Bloomberg and others have shown little interest in investing in races where there is no path to victory for a preferred candidate or to exact punishment for punishment's sake. Instead, Bloomberg's team aims to give skittish members on both sides of the aisle confidence that they will have political support in upcoming votes on gun issues." http://bit.ly/YZMfh8
VIDEO OF THE DAY
SPENDING CUTS FACT OR FICTION: THE 'HALF-TRUTHS' ABOUT TOMORROW'S BUDGET CUTS. With looming across-the-board budget cuts set to take effect tomorrow if Congress and the White House fail to reach a deal, there have been a lot of "apocalyptic" warnings coming from Washington. While the significance of the cuts should not be "belittled," fact-checker Bill Adair tells Top Line's Rick Klein and Olivier Knox the truth has been twisted and exaggerated in this ongoing political drama. Perhaps the most alarming warning about tomorrow's cuts, known as "the sequester," has come from President Obama, who has said that "federal prosecutors will have to close cases and let criminals go." Adair says that while the Justice Department will indeed have to cut back on prosecutions, dangerous criminals are not going to be wandering the streets starting tomorrow. "From what we could tell, [it was] a vast exaggeration to equate that with letting criminals go, wording that really implies opening the prison doors and letting people stream out, and so that one got a mostly false on the truth-o-meter," says Adair, editor of the fact-checking project PolitiFact. WATCH: http://yhoo.it/YBFZv6
THE HOLDER FILES
ABC News Senior Justice Correspondent Pierre Thomas went one-on-one with Attorney General Eric Holder in a rare exclusive interview yesterday. Here are some headlines from the interview from ABC's Pierre Thomas, Jason Ryan, Jack Cloherty, Jack Date and Chris Good:
HOLDER SOUNDS THE SEQUESTER ALARM. The looming budget sequestration will make Americans less safe, Eric Holder says - and anyone who says otherwise isn't telling the truth. "This is something that is going to have an impact on the safety of this country," the U.S. attorney general told ABC's Pierre Thomas on Wednesday. "And anybody that says otherwise is either lying or saying something that runs contrary to the facts," Holder said. In his interview, Holder reiterated warnings that if automatic spending cuts are triggered on Friday, the Justice Department will be handicapped in some of its most vital missions to prevent terrorist attacks and crime. "The Justice Department is going to lose nine percent of its budget between now and September 30th. We're going to lose $1.6 billion. There are not going to be as many FBI agents, ATF agents, DEA agents, prosecutors who are going to be able to do their jobs," Holder said. "They're going to be furloughed. They're going to spend time out of their offices, not doing their jobs." http://abcn.ws/YALM6y
HOLDER: GAY MARRIAGE IS THE NEXT CIVIL RIGHTS ISSUE. President Obama has "evolved" on gay marriage, his administration opposes the federal law against it, and now Attorney General Eric Holder says it's the next big civil-rights issue. ABC's Pierre Thomas asked Holder how the Justice Department will approach the U.S. Supreme Court challenge to California's Prop. 8 marriage ban. While Holder declined to hint whether his department would take sides by filing a brief in the case, Holder did address gay marriage as an issue. "From my perspective, this is really the latest civil-rights issue," Holder told ABC News. "It is the question of whether or not American citizens are going to be treated with equal protection of the laws. And so with regard to Prop. 8, we're in the process now of deciding what position we're gonna take." http://abcn.ws/Wmg0Ok
WHY ERIC HOLDER WORRIES ABOUT OBAMA. "He's the same guy that I think he was four years ago," the U.S. attorney general told ABC's Pierre Thomas in a wide-ranging, exclusive interview on Wednesday. Thomas asked Holder about the weight of dealing with national-security and other issues, and how being in office has changed the two men. "He's a serious person, he takes these matters extremely seriously," Holder said. "He's a good leader in that way-he motivates us. I think he understands how this wears, has the potential to wear people down. he's always exhorting us to keep at it the best way that we can but always telling us to try to find ways in which we do get away." Obama, Holder says, is the one member of his team who never gets a break. "I worry about him sometimes, you know, because he's the one guy who can't get away," Holder said. The attorney general also said his relationship with the president has grown distant over the last few years, as his work requires independence from the White House. http://abcn.ws/142Qr2A
OBAMA BACKS OFF SEQUESTER WARNINGS. After weeks of outlining the dire consequences of the looming across-the-board spending cuts, President Obama last night softened his warnings, saying the sequester is "not a cliff, but it is a tumble downward," reports ABC's Mary Bruce. With a little over 48 hours to avert $85 billion in cuts, the president told business executives "it's conceivable that in the first week, the first two weeks, the first three weeks, the first month - that unless your business is directly related to the Defense Department, unless you live in a town that is directly impacted by a military installation, unless you're a family that now is trying to figure out where to keep your kids during the day because you just lost a Head Start slot - a lot of people may not notice the full impact of the sequester." But, he made clear "this is going to be a big hit on the economy." "It means that you have fewer customers with money in their pockets ready to buy your goods and services," he told the Business Council in Washington. "It means that the global economy will be weaker… And the worst part of it is it's entirely unnecessary." http://abcn.ws/Vbxyeh
BIDEN TO HUNTERS: NO NEED FOR SEMI-AUTOMATIC RIFLES. Vice President Joe Biden told hunters Wednesday there's no bear too big, no varmint too small that requires the use of a semiautomatic rifle when hunting, ABC's Arlette Saenz and Devin Dwyer note. "If you have to go up into the Poconos and go bear hunting or deer hunting with that weapon, and you need a clip that has 30 rounds in it, then you shouldn't be hunting," Biden said in an interview with Field & Stream magazine released Wednesday. "You're a danger to yourself. If you can't get the bear or the deer in four or five shots, you've got a problem." Earlier in the day, Biden delivered a similar comment when he spoke to the National Association of Attorneys General, but that time mentioned varmints. "I was told, 'No, we need it for those little varmints.' OK, I got it. More muskrat and mice might be alive. OK. I think we can put up with that," Biden said at the luncheon. "Guys, these arguments!" http://abcn.ws/13ZLhnN
SECURE BORDER? EL PASO, TEXAS, SAYS, 'YES.' Death lives just across the Rio Grande, but rarely crosses from Juarez, Mexico, to El Paso, Texas. Juarez, El Paso's Mexican sister city, recorded 748 murders in 2012 - more than 2,000 in 2011 - while El Paso counted 17 last year. El Paso Chief of Police Gregory Allen told ABC News' Jim Avila and Serena Marshall that violence "hasn't crossed into the town the way a lot of people might perceive. "Not like it used to be," Allen said. "When I first came on the department, many of our crimes driven along the border and downtown resulted from illegal aliens in the country. That isn't the case as much now." According to 2011 FBI figures, El Paso, population 660,000, has been America's safest big city for the past three years. More surprising to those monitoring an immigration debate dominated by fear of crime imported from across the border is that six of the country's 10 safest cities are in high-immigration zones. San Diego is the second safest city, while Austin, Texas; San Jose, Calif.; Los Angeles and San Antonio, Texas, follow. New York City, Portland, Ore., Charlotte, N.C., and Seattle round out the safe-city list. http://abcn.ws/15kDcga
@robertcostaNRO: Think abt it: You're a 22-year-old reporter and you see what happens to BOB WOODWARD. You may stay quiet about when a flack barks/pressures
@RyanLizza: Tmrw should be flak appreciation day. Every journalist must publish the most over-the-top response they've ever received from a press sec.
@NKingofDC: Regret also means remorse or future embarrassment over past deeds of the sort that Sinatra had "too few to mention"
@dceiver: Whoa. Woke up in a cold sweat from nightmare in which Gene Sperling was apologizing to me for yelling at me. Gonna sleep with the light on!