Joe Biden’s floundering Democratic primary campaign suffered dismal finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire amid a flood of bad news and diminishing excitement among progressives, making the early days of 2020 difficult for him.
This is when Anita Dunn and Bob Bauer come in.
Former Vice President Al Gore put his political career on the line by promoting his wife and her husband, both of whom are highly respected Democratic strategists in Washington who have been working behind the scenes for decades to help elect and guide presidents and presidential candidates.
From her desk in the campaign’s Philadelphia headquarters, communications expert Dunn ran the show for Biden. Bauer, a former Obama White House lawyer, would assist in formulating the campaign’s response to issues such as Biden’s son’s business activities in other countries. In a few of months, Biden was nominated as the Democratic candidate and went on to defeat Trump in the general election in November.
Dunn and Bauer have been credited by allies with breathing new life into Biden’s political operation and ultimately leading to the vice president’s office.
Former Biden aide Cedric Richmond said News, “They are two of the greatest in the country in their particular industries.” The president relied on them heavily during the election and he still does.
Biden is once again consulting with his personal attorney Bauer and senior advisor Dunn as he approaches what may be the most turbulent phase of his administration. A tiny group of Biden’s advisers, including both of them, is reportedly responsible for developing a legal and public relations response to the discovery of sensitive documents at Biden’s Delaware home and his former Washington office.
Even some of Biden’s biggest supporters say the document debacle has become a legal and public relations mess for the president three weeks after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the matter, with the occasional drip-drip of revelations prompting questions about the White House’s handling of the situation.
Former Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote last week in The Atlantic that “Biden and the White House seem to have broken every rule — haste, openness, contrition — of crisis communications.”
Current and past coworkers alike, however, are optimistic that Dunn and Bauer will be able to steer the president toward a positive resolution of the special counsel’s investigation. The power couple’s extensive experience has prepared them for this tense time in Biden’s administration, as several of them have revealed in interviews with News.
Dunn and Bauer, both staunch Democrats, have spent decades building their careers, each taking a little different route to the top but crossing paths at crucial junctures.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Dunn cut her teeth in Washington, DC, working as a communications and strategy director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, where she met both Biden and Bauer, who were working as the committee’s legal counsel.
Bauer worked for the legal firm Perkins Coie in Washington, DC, for almost three decades before leaving to serve as White House counsel for President Barack Obama. He has written extensively on questions of democracy and voting law, and he was counsel for congressional Democrats during President Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in 1999.
It was on former New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley’s presidential campaign in 2000 that Dunn and Bauer first worked together; Dunn handled communications, and Bauer served as general counsel. For Bradley’s primary debate practice, Bauer portrayed former Vice President Al Gore, and for Biden’s 2020 campaign, he portrayed Senator Bernie Sanders and subsequently President Donald Trump.
Colleagues claim that Bauer first gained his reputation for telling wealthy clients the truth when he endorsed then-Senator John Kerry’s doomed 2004 presidential campaign. Kerry’s colleague and future U.S. Solicitor General Don Verrilli recalls that Bauer was the one to tell him that “he had to forgo all concept of challenging the election,” meaning that Kerry would concede to President George W. Bush.
Verrilli explained that the campaign needed his opinion on whether to continue fighting or give up. “[Bauer] took a giant leap forward with that.”
In 2008, Dunn and Bauer reconnected as staunch backers of then-Senator Obama’s fledgling political campaign. Dunn became an integral part of Obama’s planning and communication, and Bauer was brought on as the campaign’s general counsel. After their time in the Obama administration, both Bauer and Dunn returned to the private sector, with Bauer rejoining Perkins Coie and Dunn returning to the communications business she cofounded, SKDKnickerbocker.
They discussed Biden’s potential presidential run in both 2016 (when he finally decided against it) and 2020. Dunn and Bauer joined Biden’s campaign when he chose to run, and they were instrumental in his eventual triumph. At one point, Bauer and Harvard professor Jack Goldsmith wrote a book together titled “After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency.”
Bauer and Dunn declined official positions in the White House after Biden’s election but remained accessible. The personal representation of Biden by Bauer remained, and Dunn alternated between short-term positions in the White House and consulting for SKDKnickerbocker.
The agreement was scrutinized. During her tenure in the private sector, Dunn’s financial records show that Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, and several financial institutions were among her customers. This has led to accusations that she violated ethical standards by keeping unofficial contacts to the White House.
According to Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a government watchdog, “whenever a corporation is in serious danger of new regulations or prosecutions by a Democratic administration, they start cutting checks to SKDKnickerbocker, which sets its star players to work neutralizing the threat.” Dunn is their most prominent celebrity.
Officials at the White House have confirmed that Dunn no longer has any ownership interest in SKDKnickerbocker upon her full-time return to the Biden administration in May 2022. The person also noted that, as is standard procedure for all White House staff, the White House counsel’s office examined her financial declaration and recommended on recusals when applicable.
Bauer and Dunn are consistently ranked as one of Washington, DC’s most powerful couples in any newspaper that makes such a list. The two have widespread support among their peers and subordinates, who look up to them as authorities in their areas and role models for the next generation of Democratic political operations. A former coworker of theirs posited that one of the reasons Biden trusts them so much is that “none of them craves the limelight and you never have the idea that they’re pushing their own careers.”
A White House official has stated that Dunn is in charge of coordinating and communicating the administration’s policies on issues ranging from reproductive rights to student loan relief. She has been instrumental in the passage of several landmark bills championed by Vice President Joe Biden, including the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the Comprehensive Healthcare Improvement for the Nation’s Patients (CHIPS) Act.
Dunn is considered to be one of Vice President Biden’s closest confidantes by both current and past government officials, and President Obama has “full faith and trust in her political talent,” as stated by Richmond.
Senior legal counsel to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns and coworker Rick Pildes has praised Bauer’s cool demeanor and “knowledge of how the legal judgments reflect on the politics” of a scenario.
Trevor Morrison, a colleague of Bauer’s at New York University and a former assistant White House counsel for Obama, stated, “There are people who, in vast gatherings, when they want to get their point out, will talk louder and louder.” He really does the reverse, becoming increasingly soft-spoken until his listeners have to squint to catch his words.
Colleagues point out that Bauer and Dunn can learn from each other’s expertise.
According to Verrilli, “when Bob is attempting to work through a tough legal challenge in the political domain, he is depending in part on Anita’s remarkable perceptiveness and superb instincts,” and “Anita respects the value of what the attorneys say and doing things by the book.”
Possible accusations of a cover-up?
Bauer and Dunn, Biden’s personal attorney and his most trusted communications strategist, have become two of the most influential people in the vice president’s inner circle as a result of the special counsel inquiry against the president. However, by taking on such a large role, they have opened themselves up to criticism for any blunders that may be made, say observers.
Classified papers were discovered at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, DC, days before the November midterm elections; nevertheless, the White House did not disclose their presence until December, when it was first revealed by CBS News. This choice has under intense attention. Both Democrats and Republicans have been critical of the administration for allegedly putting politics ahead of openness, with one lawmaker going so far as to label Vice President Joe Biden’s actions as a “cover-up.”
Those allegations have been refuted by Bauer. After the appointment of a special counsel and the subsequent disclosure that more documents had been found in Biden’s garage in late December, he issued a statement in January defending Biden’s handling of the investigation, in which he emphasized the tension between operating transparently and trying to get ahead of the probe.
“We have tried to strike a balance between the necessity of public transparency where appropriate and the established standards and constraints essential to maintain the integrity of the inquiry,” Bauer added.
Numerous White House officials have since echoed some version of that justification. According to White House counsel’s office spokesman Ian Sams, the president intended to strike a “balance between maintaining and defending the integrity of an ongoing investigation with disclosing material publicly appropriate with that” on January 23. ABC News cited Sams’s comments.
The White House has been accused of concealing adverse developments by critics due to its selective release of information. When the White House revealed on January 9 that “a limited number” of classified documents had been discovered in Biden’s D.C. office space in early November, they left out information regarding an FBI search of the office that took place weeks later in the middle of the month.
Biden’s residence was searched by the FBI on January 20, and Bauer and the White House made the news public the next day. While the FBI was searching Biden’s house in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware on Wednesday, Bauer made a public statement.
“Thinking in the long run”
Bauer has earned the trust of his peers as someone who adheres to established norms and procedures, and numerous former colleagues have shared anecdotes about him that may provide light on his strategy for investigating the secret materials.
Former colleagues of Bauer’s recall instances early in the Obama administration when he stood in the way of administration officials who wanted to reach out to the Justice Department about politically charged cases, especially when the temptation to score a public relations win could threaten the integrity of a federal probe or prosecution.
According to Verrilli, “Bauer was very enthusiastic about ensuring strong separation” between the Oval Office and the Department of Justice.
Others who worked with Bauer attest to instances where he foresaw the future course of events, allowing him to formulate an effective legal and communications plan in the face of what appeared to be an immediate catastrophe.
When compared to Trump’s confidential materials, how important are Biden’s?
Pildes remarked, “He views things from a longer-term perspective.” One of his strengths is his ability to remain calm under pressure and his knowledge of how the law and politics intersect.
Now, with Bauer’s elevated status and Dunn’s continued presence in the Oval Office, they may find themselves in an unfamiliar place: the spotlight. According to their coworkers, the two are extremely low-key and reluctant to seek attention, which stands in stark contrast to the norms of Washington politics.
Bauer predicted in “After Trump” the dangers of advising a president in a legally compromising situation.
The president’s “counsel on whom presidents rely to stave off or address controversy can wind up in the midst of controversy,” he said.