For more than three decades, Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn have climbed to the summit of Washington power.
Bauer, the personal lawyer to President Joe Biden who served as White House counsel under President Barack Obama, is the godfather of Democratic election lawyers. Dunn, an adviser to Biden in the White House who was communications director under Obama, is the city’s grande dame of public relations.
Since early November, they have been at the center of Biden’s strategy for handling the discovery of classified documents among his papers from past jobs. That strategy kept the story hidden 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 is a rare moment that has shined a light on a power pair that usually operates behind the scenes with little fanfare and even less criticism.
“If it’s a room of five people, Anita and Bob are two of them,” said a former White House aide, who asked to remain anonymous because this person was not authorized to speak on the record about White House business.
To get a better sense of Dunn's 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 requested that their names be withheld — some out of a loyalty to the couple, some for fear of retribution and some because they were not authorized to speak publicly by their employers. The White House declined to comment for this story.
The documents case has created a series of delicate friction points among the president’s institutional interests, his personal legal interests and the public’s interest in transparency. As his personal lawyer and his de facto chief public communications adviser, Bauer and Dunn are at the nexus of those tension points.
Bauer, along with Richard Sauber and Stuart Delery in the White House counsel’s office, is part of a legal nucleus that has guided the Biden team’s contact 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 in immediately on the discovery was slightly larger and included Dunn, this person said.
In a statement earlier this month, Bauer said Biden had instructed his lawyers to be “forthcoming and fully cooperative” with the Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration. He also explained the limits on public disclosure.
Biden’s personal lawyers “have attempted to balance the importance of public transparency where appropriate with the established norms and limitations necessary to protect the investigation’s integrity,” Bauer wrote. “These considerations require avoiding the public release of detail relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing.”
That prioritization of legal interests over public relations has come at a short-term political cost and could turn into a long-term liability, several Democrats said.
“Whatever strategy they had has not served him well — the lack of transparency from November to January,” said a second former White House official. “Even if there’s a good reason for it, it hasn’t satisfied the press, and that creates an image problem.”
The ultimate power couple
It’s not unusual for married couples to work for the same politician. In the small circles of Washington politics, it’s how many people meet their spouses. 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.
People know they can depend on them in the trenches.
Minyon Moore, former white house political director
While rising in their respective fields, often working for the same bosses in Democratic politics, they have created a vast network of allies, amassed tens of millions of dollars, served in prestigious roles and influenced the political fortunes and decision-making of many of the Democratic Party’s most prominent figures.
Dunn and Bauer have built parallel careers that periodically intertwine. He was the general counsel and she was the communications director in the Democratic Senatorial 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 mock debates. Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader whose operation provided much of the talent for Obama’s team, counted Bauer and Dunn among his advisers. And, of course, they have played crucial roles for Obama and Biden on the campaign trail and in the presidency.
There’s a simple reason for their success, according to allies: They can be trusted to handle difficult tasks competently and with discretion.
“People know they can depend on them in the trenches,” said Minyon Moore, who served as political director in Bill Clinton’s White House and has come to know Dunn and Bauer through decades of work in Democratic politics. “For Joe Biden, what he gets from both of them is history — they’re veterans, they’re unflappable, they don’t need the limelight. ... People cannot be penalized for wanting to be true public servants. They do not have to do this.”
SKDK, where Dunn was a partner, is one of the top PR 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 the top echelons of 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 with an estimated value of between $18 million and $46 million that she would be required to divest.
Former colleagues and aides describe Dunn as an ultimate strategist, who is always thinking five and six steps ahead of everyone else.
It was Dunn who recognized early on in Barack Obama’s first campaign run that Michelle Obama would have a gift 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 Daschle days — and encouraged her to take a job with Michelle Obama.
At first Cutter hesitated, but Dunn pressed her.
“She could see before a lot of other people both on the campaign and certainly in the media the power Michelle had on the campaign trail and the leading role she could play on the campaign,” Cutter recounted.
Toward the end of the Obama administration, Bauer and Dunn helped Biden prepare for a potential bid for the presidency 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 the reins of the operation to stabilize it. She also recruited Jen O’Malley Dillon, who became Biden’s campaign manager as he put away the nomination and pivoted to the general election.
“She was like the chair of the campaign,” the first former White House aide said of Dunn. “Nothing — budget, hiring, messaging — none of those decisions were made without Anita signing off on them or having input on them.”
At times, Bauer and Dunn played on either end of consequential moments. Dunn headed the search for the vice presidential candidates, consisting of a cast of some of the highest-profile female politicians in America. At the other end of the search was Bauer, who at times was personally on calls with those candidates or their teams as he led in their legal vetting. And once Kamala Harris was chosen as vice president, it was Dunn who called at least one of the other front-runners to ask her if she’d serve as a vice chair to the Democratic National Committee, a person with knowledge of the call said.
Perhaps no other episode during the campaign was more emblematic of their powerful roles than the final days of the 2020 campaign. In the Westin Hotel in Wilmington, Delaware, just a handful of top advisers staked out a room where they gamed out next steps in the fog of an uncalled race — Dunn and Bauer were among them. Bauer was not only the strategic leader who set a tone of not engaging with each of Trump’s whims, but the public face who underscored to the media that democracy had worked.
“Trump had too many legal voices out there in a chorus and Joe had one, and it was Bob, and Bob was brilliant,” Bradley, the former senator from New Jersey and presidential candidate, said in an interview.
And as aides deluged networks with queries of when they’d make the final call of the presidential election winner, Dunn was alternately working on the possibility of shutting down a campaign and moving to the transition.
“Anita was driving the train forward,” a former campaign aide said.
Two of a kind?
Dunn entered the Biden White House at the start as a temporary employee, receiving a salary of $129,000, under the $132,552 threshold requiring the filing of financial disclosures. Eventually, Dunn left — returning for a brief one-week stint to fill in for Dillon, a deputy chief of staff — and then came back on a more permanent basis last year when Biden’s legislative agenda was in trouble and his poll numbers were floundering.
Many White House aides worked for Dunn at SKDK or were recruited by her. Bauer, who works full time at New York University’s law school and did not join the administration, has acted as a sounding board for White House lawyers on potential hires.
Their expansive network points to their many years in Democratic politics mentoring new talent. But it has also raised concerns among some former Biden aides that the pair has too much influence, leaving Biden vulnerable to cloistered thinking in a moment of political and legal crisis.
“You don’t just have two people, but two incredibly important departments,” a former Biden aide said, referring to the communications and legal operations.
Cutter rejected the idea that they have concentrated power.
“Why is that too much influence? They don’t have the same brain,” Cutter said. “It’s offensive to group them together as one entity just because they’re married. It’s insulting to the decades of accomplishment they’ve achieved 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 provide their own perspective and best advice based on their own thinking.”
Similarly, Bradley laughed at the suggestion that the two could wield too much influence as a couple.
“Give me a break. I don’t think there could be too much influence for the people, for democracy,” Bradley said. “These are individuals who have the public interest at heart. You want to have people like that around public officials.”