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 lawyer who served as White House counsel under President Barack Obama, is the godfather of Democratic election lawyers. Dunn, Biden’s White House adviser and Obama’s communications director, is the city’s grande dame of public relations.

Since early November, they have been at the center of Biden’s strategy to handle the discovery of classified documents among his previous working papers. 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’s a rare moment that has 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 officially on White House business.

To get a better idea of ​​Dunn’s and Bauer’s roles in the Biden orbit, NBC News spoke with more than a dozen former White House and presidential campaign advisers, as well as strategists and former colleagues. In most cases, these people requested that their names be withheld, some out of loyalty to their partner, some out of fear of retaliation, and others because their employers did not allow them to speak publicly. The White House declined to comment for this article.

The documents case has created a series of delicate sticking points between the president’s institutional interests, his personal legal interests, and the public interest in transparency. As his personal attorney and his de facto top public communications adviser, Bauer and Dunn find themselves at the nexus of those flashpoints.

Bauer, along with Richard Sauber and Stuart Delery in the White House counsel’s office, is part of a legal core that has guided the Biden team’s contact with the Justice Department and the National Archives and Records Administration, according to a report. person familiar with your job. The group of White House aides who learned of the discovery right away was a bit larger and included Dunn, this person said.

In a declaration Earlier this month, Bauer said Biden had instructed his lawyers to be «explicit and fully cooperative» with the Justice Department and NARA. He also explained the limits of public disclosure.

Biden’s personal attorneys «have 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 require avoiding public disclosure of details relevant to the investigation while it is ongoing.»

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

«Any strategy they’ve had hasn’t served them well — the lack of transparency from November to January,» said a second former White House official. «Even if there is a good reason for it, it has not satisfied the press and that creates an image problem.»

The ultimate power couple

It is not uncommon for married couples to work for the same politician. In the small circles of Washington politics, in fact, it’s how many people know 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 be depended on in the trenches.

Minyon Moore, former White House Political Director

As they rose through their respective fields, often working for the same bosses in Democratic politics, they created a vast network of allies, amassed tens of millions of dollars, held prestigious roles, and influenced the political fortunes and decision-making of many of their number. The most prominent figures in the Democratic Party.

Dunn and Bauer have built parallel careers that intertwine periodically. He was the general counsel and she was the communications director for 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 is 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 be depended on 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 is history: they’re veterans, they’re stolid, they don’t need to be in the spotlight. … People cannot be punished for wanting to be true public servants. They don’t have to do this.»

SKDK is one of Washington’s leading public relations firms, with a list of high-powered clients it swept across corporate America, Democratic campaigns, and the nonprofit world. And in a city whose motto is power, Dunn’s long career at the highest levels of politics has led to success even outside of government.

When Dunn filed a financial statement late last year, when he returned to the White House in a full-time role, he showed an investment portfolio with an estimated value of between $18 million and $46 million that it would be forced to divest.

Former colleagues and aides describe Dunn as a supreme tactician, always thinking five or six steps ahead of others.

It was Dunn who recognized early on in Barack Obama’s first campaign that Michelle Obama would have a way with the public and also felt that Mrs. Obama was not getting the kind of publicity she deserved. She called Stephanie Cutter, a longtime Democratic operative who was on Biden’s 2020 campaign and said she 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.

“He was able to see before many other people, both on the campaign trail and in the media, the power that Michelle had on the campaign trail and the leading role she could play on the campaign trail,” Cutter recounted.

Toward the end of the Obama administration, Bauer and Dunn helped Biden prepare for a potential 2016 run for president, a race he ultimately chose not to enter. When he ran in 2020, they both became standout players in his campaign.

During the darkest days of that year’s primary for Biden, who lost the first three races, Dunn temporarily took over the reins of the operation to stabilize it. He also recruited Jen O’Malley Dillon, who became Biden’s campaign manager when he dropped the nomination and moved on to the general election.

“She was like the campaign chair,” the former White House first assistant said of Dunn. «Nothing: budget, hiring, messages, none of those decisions were made without Anita’s approval or without her having her opinion on them.»

Sometimes Bauer and Dunn played on both ends of big moments. Dunn led the search for female vice presidential candidates, made up of a cast of some of the highest-profile women politicians in the United States. At the other end of the search was Bauer, who was sometimes personally on calls with those candidates or her teams as she conducted her legal research. And once Kamala Harris was chosen as vice chair, it was Dunn who called at least one of the other top candidates to ask if she would serve as vice chair of 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. At the Westin Hotel in Wilmington, Delaware, just a handful of top advisers staked out a room where they played out the Next Steps in the mist. of an unannounced race: Dunn and Bauer were among them. Bauer was not only the strategic leader who set the tone for not compromising 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, a former New Jersey senator and presidential candidate, said in an interview.

And while aides flooded the networks with questions about when they would make the final call on the winner of the presidential election, Dunn alternately worked on the possibility of shutting down a campaign and moving on to transition.

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

Two of a kind?

Dunn entered the Biden White House at first as a temp, receiving a salary of $129,000, below the $132,552 threshold that requires filing financial disclosures. Eventually, Dunn left, returning for a brief one-week stint to replace Dillon, a deputy chief of staff, then returned more permanently last year when Biden’s legislative agenda was in trouble and his poll numbers dipped. they staggered

Many White House aides either worked for Dunn at SKDK or were recruited by her. Bauer, who did not join the administration, has acted as a sounding board for White House lawyers on potential hires.

Their wide network points to their many years in Democratic politics mentoring new talent. But it has also raised concerns among some former Biden aides that both 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,” said a former Biden aide, referring to communications and legal operations.

Cutter rejected the idea that they have concentrated power.

“Why is it too much influence? They don’t have the same brain,” Cutter said. “It is offensive to lump them together as one entity just because they are married. It’s an insult to the decades of accomplishment you’ve accomplished as individuals. They are not in the room because they are Bob Bauer and Anita, the couple. They’re in the room as Bob Bauer and Anita Dunn, providing their own perspective and the best advice based on their own thinking.»

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

«Give me a break. I don’t think there can be too much leverage for the people, for democracy,» Bradley said. «These are people who care about the public interest. You want to have people like that around public officials.»