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

For more than three decades, Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn have risen to the pinnacle of power in Washington.

Bauer, President Joe Biden’s personal attorney who served as a White House adviser under President Barack Obama, is the patron of Democratic election lawyers. Dunn, Biden’s White House adviser and communications director under Obama, is the grand dame of public relations in town.

Since early November, they have been central to Biden’s strategy to deal with the discovery of classified documents among his papers from past jobs. This strategy hid the story from the public for more than two months, demonstrating the tension between the areas in which Bauer and Dunn, respectively, are Biden’s most trusted advisers: law and public relations. And it’s a rare moment that shed light on a power pair that usually 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 publicly about the White House affairs.

To get a better idea of ​​Dunn and Bauer’s roles in Biden’s orbit, NBC News spoke with more than a dozen former White House and presidential campaign aides, as well as strategists. and former colleagues. Most of these people asked that their names be withheld – some out of loyalty to the couple, some out of fear of reprisals and some because they were not authorized to speak publicly by their employers. The White House declined to comment for this story.

The documents affair has created a series of delicate friction points between the president’s institutional interests, his personal legal interests and the public’s interest in transparency. As his personal lawyer and de facto chief public communications adviser, Bauer and Dunn are at the crossroads of these points of tension.

Bauer, along with Richard Sauber and Stuart Delery in the White House Counsel’s Office, is part of a legal core that guided the Biden team’s contacts with the Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration. , according to a person familiar with their work.. The group of White House aides who were looped immediately after the discovery were slightly larger and included Dunn, that person said.

In a statement earlier this month, Bauer said Biden had instructed his attorneys to be “provid and fully cooperative” with the Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration. He also explained the limits of public disclosure.

Biden’s personal attorneys “attempted to balance the importance of public transparency, where appropriate, with established standards and limitations necessary to protect the integrity of the investigation,” Bauer wrote. “These considerations necessitate avoiding public disclosure of details relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing.”

This prioritization of legal interests over public relations has had a short-term political cost and could turn into a long-term liability, several Democrats said.

“Whatever strategy they had, it didn’t serve it well – the lack of transparency from November to January,” said a second former White House official. “Even though there’s a good reason for that, it didn’t satisfy the press, and it creates an image problem.”

The Ultimate Power Torque

It is not uncommon for married couples to work for the same politician. In Washington’s smaller political circles, it’s the number of people who meet their spouse. But in the annals of presidential politics, few unelected couples have become as influential as Bauer and Dunn — practically furniture in the modern Democratic Oval Office.

While rising in their respective fields, often working for the same patrons of Democratic politics, they created a vast network of allies, amassed tens of millions of dollars, served in prestigious roles, and influenced political fortunes and the decision-making of many of the most prominent figures in the Democratic Party.

Dunn and Bauer have built parallel careers that periodically intertwine. He was the general counsel and she was the communications director for the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee nearly 35 years ago. Married in 1993, they worked together on Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign, with Bauer playing the role of Al Gore in fictionalized debates. Tom Daschle, the former Democratic Senate leader whose surgery provided much of the talent for Obama’s team, counted Bauer and Dunn among his advisers. And, of course, they were crucial for Obama and Biden on the campaign trail and in the presidency.

There is a simple reason for their success, according to their allies: they can be trusted to handle difficult tasks with skill and discretion.

“People know they can be counted on in the trenches,” said Minyon Moore, who served as Bill Clinton’s White House political director and got to know Dunn and Bauer over decades of working in politics. democrat. “For Joe Biden, what he gets from the two of them is history – they’re veterans, they’re unfazed, they don’t need the spotlight. … People cannot be penalized for wanting to be real officials. They don’t have to.

SKDK, of which Dunn is a partner, is one of the top public relations firms in Washington, with a list of high-powered clients spread across corporate America, Democratic campaigns and the nonprofit world. And in a city whose currency is power, Dunn’s long career in high politics has led to success even outside of government.

When Dunn filed a financial disclosure late last year as she returned to the White House in a full-time position, it showed an investment portfolio worth an estimated $18 million to $46 million. dollars it would be required to surrender.

Former colleagues and aides describe Dunn as the ultimate strategist, always thinking five or six steps ahead of everyone else.

It was Dunn who recognized early on in Barack Obama’s first election campaign that Michelle Obama would have a knack with the public but wasn’t getting the kind of publicity she deserved. Dunn called Stephanie Cutter — a longtime Democratic operative who was involved in Biden’s 2020 campaign and said she had worked with Bauer and Dunn for 25 years, dating back to the days of Daschle — and told her. encouraged to take a job with Michelle Obama.

At first, Cutter hesitated, but Dunn pressed her.

“She got to see in front of a lot of other people both during the campaign and certainly in the media the power that Michelle had on the campaign trail and the leading role she could play in the campaign,” Cutter recounted. .

Towards the end of the Obama administration, Bauer and Dunn helped Biden prepare for a possible presidential bid in 2016 — a race he ultimately decided not to run. When he ran in 2020, both became prominent players in his campaign.

During the darkest days of that year’s primaries for Biden, who lost the first three contests, Dunn temporarily took over the reins of the operation to stabilize it. She also recruited Jen O’Malley Dillon, who became Biden’s campaign manager as he rescinded the nomination and looked to the general election.

“She was like the campaign chair,” the former White House first aide said of Dunn. “Nothing – budget, hiring, messaging – none of those decisions were made without Anita approving them or having her say.”

At times, Bauer and Dunn played at either end of consecutive moments. Dunn led the search for the vice presidential candidates, made up of a cast of some of America’s most prominent female politicians. On the other end of the search was Bauer, who sometimes had personal contact with these candidates or their teams as he led their legal vetting. And once Kamala Harris was chosen as vice-chairman, it was Dunn who called at least one of the other frontrunners to ask if she would be vice-chairman of the Democratic National Committee, a person familiar with the matter said. the call. .

Perhaps no other episode of the campaign has been more emblematic of their powerful roles than the final days of the 2020 campaign. At the Westin Hotel in Wilmington, Delaware, a handful of top advisers have staked out a room where they mapped out the next steps in the fog of a no-holds-barred race – Dunn and Bauer were among them. Bauer was not just the strategic leader who set the tone for not engaging with Trump’s every whim, but the public face who stressed to the media that democracy had worked.

“Trump had too many legal voices in a chorus and Joe had one, and it was Bob, and Bob was brilliant,” Bradley, the former New Jersey senator and presidential candidate, said in an interview.

And as aides flooded the networks with questions about when they would make the presidential winner’s final call, Dunn alternately worked on the possibility of ending a campaign and moving on to transition.

“Anita was driving the train,” said a former campaign aide.

Two of a kind?

Dunn entered the Biden White House initially as a temporary employee, receiving a salary of $129,000, below the $132,552 threshold requiring the filing of financial disclosures. Eventually Dunn left — returning for a brief week-long stint to replace Dillon, a deputy chief of staff — then returned on a more permanent basis last year when Biden’s legislative agenda was in trouble and his numbers polls floundered.

Many White House aides worked for Dunn at SKDK or were recruited by her. Bauer, who works full-time at New York University Law School and has not joined the administration, has acted as a sounding board for White House lawyers in potential hires.

Their extensive network underscores their many years in Democratic politics mentoring new talent. But it has also raised concerns among some former Biden aides that the pair have too much influence, leaving Biden vulnerable to cloistered thinking at a time of political and legal crisis.

“You have not just two people, but two incredibly important departments,” a former Biden aide said, referring to communications and legal operations.

Cutter dismissed the idea that they concentrated power.

“Why is that too much influence?” They don’t have the same brain,” Cutter said. “It’s offensive to lump them into one entity just because they’re married. It’s insulting to the decades of accomplishments they’ve had as individuals. They’re not in the room because they’re Bob Bauer and Anita the couple. They’re in the room as Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn, who offer their own perspective and the best advice based on their own thinking.

Similarly, Bradley laughed off the suggestion that the two might wield too much influence as a couple.

“Leave me alone. I don’t think there can be too much influence for the people, for democracy,” Bradley said. “These are people who have the public interest at heart. people like that around civil servants.

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