The power couple at the center of Biden’s political universe

Anita Dunn and Bob Bauer. Dunn was a well-known figure in the Obama campaign and currently working as a consultant, Bauer practices election law.

Linda Davidson | Washington Post | beautiful pictures

For more than three decades, Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn have climbed to the top of Washington’s power.

Bauer, the personal lawyer of President Joe Biden, who served as a White House adviser under President Barack Obama, is godfather to the Democratic campaign’s attorneys. Dunn, Biden’s adviser to the White House who served as communications director under Obama, is the city’s public relations celebrity.

Since early November, they have been central to Biden’s strategy to handle the discovery of classified documents among his papers from previous jobs. That strategy kept the story hidden from the public for more than two months, highlighting the tension between the areas where Bauer and Dunn are Biden’s most trusted advisers, respectively: law and public relations. And it’s a rare moment that sheds light on a power couple that often operates behind the scenes with little fanfare and even less criticism.

“If it’s a five-person room, Anita and Bob are two of them,” said a former White House aide, who asked to remain anonymous because the person was not authorized to speak on the White House business records.

To better understand Dunn and Bauer’s role in Biden’s orbit, NBC News spoke with more than a dozen former White House and presidential campaign aides, as well as former strategists and colleagues. In most cases, these people requested anonymity – some out of loyalty to the couple, some out of fear of reprisal, and some because they weren’t authorized to speak publicly by their employers. The White House declined to comment for this piece.

The document case created a series of delicate conflicts between the president’s institutional interests, his personal legal interests, and the public’s interest in transparency. As his de facto private attorney and public communications consultant, Bauer and Dunn are the nexus of those tension points.

Bauer, along with Richard Sauber and Stuart Delery in the White House counsel’s office, is part of the legal nucleus that guides the Biden team’s contact with the Department of Justice and the National Archives and Records Administration, according to a report. people familiar with their work. This person said the team of White House aides immediately involved in the discovery was slightly larger and included Dunn.

In statement Earlier this month, Bauer said Biden had instructed his attorneys to “come and fully cooperate” with the DOJ and NARA. He also explained the limits on public disclosure.

Biden’s personal attorney “tried to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with the established standards and limits necessary to protect the integrity of the investigation,” Bauer wrote. . “These considerations require avoiding public disclosure of details related to the investigation while it is ongoing.”

Some Democrats say prioritizing legitimate interests over public relations has come at the expense of short-term politics and could turn into a long-term liability.

A second former White House official said: “Whatever strategy they came up with didn’t serve him well – the lack of transparency from November to January.” “Even with good reason, it doesn’t satisfy the press and that creates an image problem.”

Ultimate power couple

It is not uncommon for couples to work for the same politician. In Washington’s small political circles, the reality is how many people meet their spouses. But in presidential political history, few unelected couples have become as influential as Bauer and Dunn—indeed, the furniture in the modern Democratic Oval Office.

While growing in their respective fields, often working for the same boss in Democratic politics, they have forged a vast network of allies, amassing tens of millions of dollars, serving serve in prestigious roles and influence the political destiny and decision-making of many of them. the most prominent figure of the Democratic Party.

Dunn and Bauer have built up a recurring parallel career. He was general counsel and she was communications director for the Democratic senatorial campaign nearly 35 years ago. Married in 1993, they worked together on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, with Bauer playing Al Gore in mock debates. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic leader in the Senate, whose activism provided much of the talent for Obama’s team, considered Bauer and Dunn his advisers. And, of course, they played important roles for Obama and Biden during the campaign and during the presidency.

According to the allies, the simple reason for their success was: they could be trusted to handle difficult tasks competently and cautiously.

Minyon Moore, who served as Bill Clinton’s White House political director and has known Dunn and Bauer through decades of working in Democratic politics, said: “People know they can count on them in their work. trenches. “For Joe Biden, what he got from both of them was history – they were veterans, they weren’t applauded, they didn’t need the limelight. … People can’t be fooled. punished for wanting to be real public servants. They don’t have to do this.”

U.S. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with the Presidential Committee on Election Administration in the Roosevelt Room of the White House on January 22, 2014 in Washington, DC. From left: Committee co-chairs Robert Bauer, Biden, Obama, co-chairs Benjamin Ginsberg and Kathy Ruemmler.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | beautiful pictures

SKDK is one of the leading PR firms in Washington, with a list of high power customers spread throughout corporate America, Democratic campaigns, and the nonprofit world. And in a city where money is power, Dunn’s long career in the top political ranks has led to success even outside of government.

When Dunn filed her financial statements late last year, when she returned to the White House to work full-time, it showed a portfolio with an estimated value of from 18 million dollars to 46 million dollars that she will be required to divest.

Former colleagues and assistants describe Dunn as a brilliant strategist who always thinks five and six steps ahead of others.

It was Dunn who realized early on in Barack Obama’s first campaign that Michelle Obama would have a gift to the public and also felt that Mrs. Obama wasn’t getting the public attention she deserved. She called Stephanie Cutter, a longtime Democratic agent who was involved in Biden’s 2020 campaign, and said she’s worked with Bauer and Dunn for 25 years, since those days. days at Daschle – and encouraged her to take a job with Michelle Obama.

At first, Cutter hesitated, but Dunn pressed her.

“She could foresee a lot of other people both during the campaign and certainly in the media about the power Michelle had on the campaign trail and her leading role,” recalls Cutter. the top she could take on in the campaign.

Towards the end of the Obama administration, Bauer and Dunn helped Biden prepare for a potential 2016 presidential run – a race he ultimately decided not to enter. When he ran for office in 2020, both became prominent figures in his campaign.

U.S. President Barack Obama accompanies White House Senior Adviser David Plouffe (left) and Anita Dunn to debate preparations at Kingsmill Resort October 16, 2012 in Williamsburg, Virginia.

Mandel Ngan | AFP | beautiful pictures

During the darkest days of that year’s primaries for Biden, who had lost the first three contests, Dunn temporarily took the helm of the operation to stabilize it. She also recruited Jen O’Malley Dillon, who became Biden’s campaign manager when he dropped the nomination and moved into the general election.

“She’s like the host of the campaign,” the former first White House aide said of Dunn. “None of it – budgeting, hiring, messaging – none of those decisions are made without Anita signing off or having input on them.”

At times, Bauer and Dunn played at either end of key moments. Dunn heads the search for vice presidential candidates, including some of the most prominent female politicians in America. On the other side of the search is Bauer, who at one point phoned those candidates or their team directly as he led the way in their legal due diligence. And after Kamala Harris was selected as vice president, it was Dunn who phoned at least one of the other top candidates to ask her if she wanted to serve as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee. or not, said a person familiar with the call.

Perhaps no other phase of the campaign has played a more powerful role than the final days of the 2020 campaign. In the Westin Hotel in Wilmington, Del., only a handful of top advisors are located. bets on a room where they map out their next moves in the fog of an unmarked race – Dunn and Bauer are among them. Bauer was not only a strategic leader whose attitude was not to participate in every Trump whim, but also the face of the public, who emphasized to the media that democracy worked. .

“Trump has too many legitimate voices in a choir and Joe has one, and that’s Bob, and Bob is brilliant,” said Bradley, a former New Jersey senator and presidential candidate. in an interview.

And as aides flooded the networks with questions about when they made the last call of the winner of the presidential election, Dunn alternated working on the possibility of ending a campaign and moving on. transition.

“Anita is driving the ship forward,” said a former campaign aide.

Two of a kind?

Dunn entered the Biden White House from the start as a temporary employee, earning a salary of $129,000, below the $132,552 threshold of financial disclosure requirements. Eventually, Dunn left — returning for a short one-week period to replace Dillon, the deputy chief of staff — and then returned more often last year when Biden’s legislative agenda floundered and His poll results are failing.

Many White House aides worked for Dunn at SKDK or were employed by her. Bauer, who did not join the administration, acted as a sounding board for White House attorneys on potential employees.

Their vast network indicates that they have spent years in Democratic politics mentoring new talent. But it also worries some former Biden aides that the pair have too much influence, leaving Biden vulnerable to closed-mindedness in a time of political and legal crisis.

Anita Dunn (left), senior adviser to President Joe Biden, and White House Deputy Director for Legislative Affairs Reema Dodin arrive for a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the Capitol. United States Capitol on July 22, 2021 in Washington, DC.

Somodevilla Chips | beautiful pictures

“You don’t just have two people, but two extremely important departments,” a former Biden aide said, referring to legal and communications operations.

Cutter rejects the idea that they have centralized power.

“Why are there so many influences? They don’t have the same brain,” says Cutter. “It’s insulting to group them together as one entity just because they’re married. It’s insulting to the decades of achievement they’ve achieved as individuals. They’re not in the room because they’re a couple. Bob Bauer and Anita. They’re in the room with Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn, who offer their own views and best advice based on their own thoughts.”

Likewise, Bradley laughs at the suggestion that the two might have too much influence as a couple.

“Let me rest. I don’t think there can be too much of an effect on the people, on the democracy,” Bradley said. “These are individuals who care about the common good. You want people like that around officials.”

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