In Biden's White House, a behind-the-scenes power couple comes to the fore

Handling a special counsel probe puts Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn in the spotlight.

February 3, 2023, 5:12 AM

The early days of 2020 were dark ones for Joe Biden, whose sputtering Democratic primary campaign had suffered embarrassing finishes in Iowa and New Hampshire under a deluge of bad press and waning enthusiasm among progressives.

Enter Anita Dunn and Bob Bauer.

With his political career on the line, the former vice president elevated the roles of the married couple -- two of Washington's top Democratic strategists, with decades of experience quietly guiding presidents and presidential candidates.

Dunn, a communications specialist, took control of Biden's campaign, immersing herself in its minutiae from a small cubicle at its Philadelphia headquarters. Bauer, a former Obama White House counsel, would help shape the campaign's response to some of Biden's thorniest political vulnerabilities, including his son's overseas business dealings. Within months Biden had secured the Democratic nomination, and eventually toppled Donald Trump in the November general election.

Allies credit Dunn and Bauer with helping resuscitate Biden's political operation to land him in the Oval Office.

"They are two of the best in the country in their respective fields," Cedric Richmond, a former senior adviser to Biden, told ABC News. "The president recognizes their talent -- he leaned on them during the campaign and continues to."

Today, as Biden enters perhaps the most tumultuous period of his presidency, he is again turning to the counsel of Bauer, his personal attorney, and Dunn, his senior adviser. Both are among a small coterie of aides responsible for crafting the legal and public relations response to the discovery of confidential records at Biden's Delaware home and his former Washington office, sources said.

Anita Dunn and Bob Bauer.
Courtesy of Anita Dunn and New York University

Three weeks after Attorney General Merrick Garland appointed a special counsel to investigate the matter, even some of Biden's biggest boosters say the document debacle has become a legal and public relations mess for the president, with the sporadic drip-drip of revelations prompting questions about the White House's handling of the situation.

"Biden and the White House seemingly have violated every precept -- speed, transparency, contrition -- of crisis communications," former Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote in The Atlantic last week.

Nevertheless, current and former colleagues have expressed confidence that Dunn and Bauer can help guide the president toward a benign conclusion to the special counsel's probe. In interviews with ABC News, several of them reveal how the power couple's deep experience has prepared them for this increasingly fraught moment in Biden's presidency.

Democratic foot soldiers

Dunn and Bauer have worked for decades in Democratic politics, charting separate paths to power but overlapping at key moments along the way.

Dunn cut her teeth in Washington in the 1980s and '90s, running communications and strategy operations for various Democratic lawmakers, candidates and party-affiliated groups, including the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee -- where she first met both Biden and Bauer, who served as legal counsel to the organization.

Bauer spent more than three decades with the Washington-based law firm Perkins Coie, taking intermittent leaves to work on presidential campaigns, and doing a stint as White House counsel to President Barack Obama. He served as counsel to congressional Democrats during President Bill Clinton's 1999 impeachment trial and has written extensively on democracy and voting-related legal issues.

The pair first joined forces on former New Jersey Sen. Bill Bradley's 2000 presidential campaign, with Dunn handling communications and Bauer working as general counsel. Bauer also played the role of former Vice President Al Gore during Bradley's primary debate preparations -- and would later do the same for Biden's 2020 campaign, first as Sen. Bernie Sanders, then President Donald Trump.

In 2004, Bauer signed onto then-Sen. John Kerry's ill-fated bid for the White House, where colleagues said he minted his reputation for telling powerful clients difficult truths. Don Verrilli, a colleague on Kerry's campaign who went on to become the U.S. Solicitor General, recalled Bauer taking charge of informing Kerry that "he had to relinquish any thought of challenging the election," which President George W. Bush had won by a narrow margin.

"[The campaign] was looking for his judgment on whether to keep fighting or concede," Verrilli said. "That was a big step, and [Bauer] was the one who did it."

Dunn and Bauer reunited in 2008 as early supporters of then-Sen. Barrack Obama's upstart political operation. Dunn would emerge as a chief architect of Obama's strategy and messaging, and Bauer joined on as the campaign's general counsel. Both later served in the Obama White House before returning to the private sector -- Bauer to Perkins Coie and Dunn to SKDKnickerbocker, the communications firm she cofounded.

In this Oct. 19, 2020, file photo, Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden and Anita Dunn center, depart The Queen theatre in Wilmington, Del.
Carolyn Kaster/AP, FILE

The pair was involved in Biden's deliberations about seeking the presidency in 2016 -- when he ultimately opted out -- and again in 2020. When Biden decided to run, Dunn and Bauer joined the campaign and helped steer him to victory. Along the way, Bauer co-authored a book with Harvard academic Jack Goldsmith, entitled, "After Trump: Reconstructing the Presidency."

After Biden was elected, Bauer and Dunn opted out of official roles in the White House, but remained within reach. Bauer continued to represent Biden in a personal capacity, and Dunn hopscotched between temporary White House stints and her consulting work at SKDKnickerbocker,

The arrangement attracted scrutiny. Critics accused Dunn of flaunting ethics regulations by maintaining unofficial ties to the White House during her time in the private sector, where her clients included Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, and various financial institutions, according to her financial disclosures.

"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," said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, a government watchdog. "Dunn is the biggest star they have."

Dunn eventually returned to the Biden administration full-time in May 2022, and a White House official said she has since divested from SKDKnickerbocker, where she no longer has an ownership stake. The official added that the White House counsel's office has reviewed her financial disclosure and advised on recusals where appropriate -- a precaution customary for all White House employees.

'Complete faith and trust'

Open any Washington, D.C., publication that lists the district's most powerful couples, and Bauer and Dunn will almost certainly be listed. The two enjoy broad support from colleagues and aides, who regard them as experts in their fields and mentors to the next generation of Democratic political operatives. "Neither of them seeks the limelight and you never have the sense that they're advancing their own careers ... which might be one of the reasons they're so trusted by Biden," said a former colleague.

A White House official said Dunn oversees messaging and coordination for the White House and the broader administration, with her portfolio ranging from reproductive rights to student debt relief. She's worked extensively on some of Biden's most important legislative triumphs, like the Inflation Reduction Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, and the semiconductor funding bill, called CHIPS.

Current and former officials describe Dunn as one of Biden's most trusted advisers, and the president maintains "complete faith and trust in her political aptitude," said Richmond.

Bauer has earned a reputation for his calm temperament and for demonstrating an "awareness of how the legal decisions refract on the politics" of a situation, said Rick Pildes, who served alongside Bauer as a senior legal adviser to Obama's 2008 and 2012 campaigns.

"There are people who, in large rooms, when they want to get their point across, will speak louder and louder," said Trevor Morrison, a colleague of Bauer's at New York University and a former associate White House counsel for Obama. "He tends to do the opposite -- he speaks more and more quietly and people strain to hear every word he says."

Colleagues say Bauer and Dunn both benefit from each other's skillsets.

"When Bob is trying to think through a difficult legal problem in the political sphere, he is relying in part on Anita's considerable perceptiveness and excellent instincts," Verrilli said, "and Anita appreciates the importance of what the lawyers say and doing things by the book."

Accusations of a cover-up?

As the personal attorney and the most trusted communications strategist to a president now under investigation by a special counsel, Bauer and Dunn have emerged as perhaps the most consequential voices in Biden’s inner circle. But observers say that responsibility has also exposed them to the burden of any perceived missteps along the way.

Despite first becoming aware of the existence of classified records at the Penn Biden Center in Washington days before the midterm elections in November, the White House failed to reveal the documents' existence until December, when it was first reported by CBS News -- a decision that has attracted immense scrutiny. Critics in both parties have accused the administration of prioritizing politics over transparency, with Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb., going as far as calling Biden's conduct tantamount to a "cover-up."

Bauer has pushed back on those accusations. In January, following the revelation that additional documents had been found in Biden's garage in late December and the subsequent appointment of a special counsel, he released a statement defending Biden's handling of the investigation, highlighting the competing goals of operating with transparency and not getting ahead of the probe.

"We 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 said.

In this Feb 12, 2014, file photo, Robert Bauer, co-chair of The Presidential Commission on Election and Administration, testifies during a Senate Rules and Administration Committee hearing in Washington, D.C.
Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call via AP, FILE

Since then, multiple White House officials have repeated variations of that defense. Ian Sams, a spokesperson for the White House counsel's office, directed ABC News to remarks he made on Jan. 23, when he told reporters that the president wanted to balance the "a tension between protecting and safeguarding the integrity of an ongoing investigation with providing information publicly appropriate with that."

Critics say the White House's selective dissemination of information has left the impression that it is withholding some damaging developments. On Jan. 9, when the White House first acknowledged that "a small number" of classified documents had been found in Biden's D.C. office space in early November, they omitted details about an FBI search of the office weeks later, in mid-November.

Later, however, when the FBI conducted a search of Biden's home on Jan. 20, Bauer and the White House announced the development the following day. On Wednesday, when the FBI searched Biden's Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, home, Bauer released a statement while the search was still underway.

'A longer-term perspective'

Among allies, Bauer has cultivated a reputation for respecting institutions and norms, and several former colleagues described moments from his past that could instruct how he is approaching the classified documents probe.

Former colleagues recalled moments from early in the Obama administration when Bauer, as White House counsel, stood in the way of administration officials who wanted to reach out to the Justice Department about politically charged cases -- particularly when the temptation to score a public relations win could threaten the integrity of a federal probe or prosecution.

"Bauer was absolutely zealous about maintaining strict separation" between the White House and Justice Department, Verrilli said.

Other former colleagues pointed to moments in his past when Bauer correctly gauged how an apparent crisis in the short term might unfold down the road -- and crafted a legal and communications strategy around those projections.

"He sees things from a longer-term perspective," said Pildes. "He can resist pressure to overreact in the moment, and understands how the legal side fits into the larger political environment."

Now, Bauer's newfound role and Dunn's staying power in the White House may be putting them in a novel position: in the public eye. Colleagues say the two are highly discreet and inclined to reject the limelight, particularly by the standards of politics in Washington, where success often requires self-aggrandizement.

In his book "After Trump," Bauer foreshadowed the risk to those who find themselves counseling a president during legally perilous times.

"It is thus inevitable," he wrote, "that the counsel on whom presidents rely to stave off or address controversy might end up in the middle of controversy."

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