Anita Dunn

Anita Dunn

Overview

* Was an adviser to the political campaigns of several Democrat Senators
* Helped lay the groundwork for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign
* Was named as Obama’s White House communications director in 2009
* Cited Mao as one of her “favorite political philosophers” in a 2009 speech
* Resigned as White House communications director in November 2009
* Was managing director of the political consulting firm SKD Knickerbocker
* Was named as a senior advisor to President Joe Biden in 2021


Anita Dunn was born on January 8, 1958, and was raised in Bethesda, Maryland. A University of Maryland graduate, she began her political career in the late 1970s as an intern for Gerald Rafshoon, President Jimmy Carter’s White House communications director. She subsequently worked for Carter’s chief-of-staff, Hamilton Jordan.

Dunn later served as communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) during both the 1988 and 1990 election cycles. In 1993 she became a senior partner with Squier Knapp Dunn Communications, a Washington, D.C.-based political consulting firm that was founded by Bob Squier and William Knapp to serve clients affiliated with Democratic Party causes. (In 2010, this firm merged with its partner company, Knickerbocker Consulting, and was renamed SKD Knickerbocker, or SKDK).

Dunn also worked in various capacities for a number of noteworthy Democrats such as John Glenn (press assistant in Glenn’s 1984 senatorial campaign); Robert Edgar (communications director in Edgar’s 1984 and 1986 senatorial campaigns); Bill Bradley (communications director and chief strategist for Bradley, 1991-2000); Tom Daschle (consultant and senior political adviser to Daschle, 1995-2004); and Evan Bayh (media consultant in Bayh’s 2004 senatorial campaign).

In 2006 Dunn was hired by then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama to serve as communications director for his political action committee, the Hope Fund, which in 2008 evolved into the “Obama For America” (OFA) presidential campaign. In the spring of 2008, Dunn became OFA’s director of communications, policy, and research operations. In January 2009 OFA merged with the Democratic National Committee and became known as Organizing for America.

Eight days before Mr. Obama’s inauguration as U.S. President in January 2009, Dunn traveled to the Dominican Republic to attend a conference hosted by the Global Foundation for Democracy and Development (GFDD). There, in an interview, she explained how the organizers of the 2008 Obama campaign organizers had dealt with critics who pointed out Obama’s dearth of experience in high political office: “We made experience, which was a prime target of our opponent [longtime Republican Senator John McCain], we made it a negative trait,” said Dunn.

At that same conference, Dunn and Obama’s digital strategist, Ben Self, together gave a tutorial to Dominican President Leonel Fernandez and other government officials on how to turn a virtually unknown politician into a perceived messiah — as Dunn and her fellow Democrats in the U.S. had done with Obama. Said Dunn:

“But the reality is that whether it was a David Plouffe [Obama’s campaign manager] video or an Obama speech, that a huge part of our press strategy was focused on making the media cover what Obama was actually saying, as opposed to you know why the campaign was saying it, what the tactic was. That we had a huge premium both on message discipline, on people in the campaign not leaking to reporters, on people in the campaign not discussing our strategy, and also on making the press cover what we were saying.

“So, we know, one of the reasons we did so many of the David Plouffe videos was not just for our supporters, but also because it was a way for us to get our message out without having to actually talk to reporters. We just put that out there and make them write what Plouffe had said, as opposed to Plouffe doing an interview with a reporter.

“So it was very much, we controlled it, as opposed to the press controlled it. And it did not always make us popular with the press. But we, increasingly, by the general election, very rarely did we communicate through the press anything that we didn’t absolutely control. So, President — Senator Obama himself did a lot of local television. We went to as much live television as possible so it couldn’t be edited when it came to him, it was live, so that he could speak in longer than a 12 second sound bite. So that what the voters heard, we determined as opposed to some editor in a TV station […] But no, you’re right, we went around that [media] filter.”

Also at the GFDD conference, Dunn spoke about how the Obama campaign had handled the issue of their candidate’s “scary friends,” like former Weather Underground terrorist William Ayers. Their strategy, she explained, was simply to divert the public’s attention away from the Ayers connection at every opportunity: “Barack Obama was the best answer to the ‘too risky’ argument … when they [Americans] heard Barack Obama and when they saw Barack Obama, he didn’t sound scary. He didn’t sound risky. He sounded like a president…. [T]he best answer to the argument that you couldn’t trust him, was to listen to Barack Obama.”

Similarly steering the media away from discussions on specifics regarding policy and worldview, Dunn and Self had crafted their 2008 campaign messaging chiefly around Obama’s personal charm and appeal, which they exploited in order to gain an emotional connection with members of the press. As Self described the process: “You bring these [media] people together, what do you do with them? How do you transition those people you’ve collected … and get them to do what you want them to do.? These are the Bible in many ways of new campaigns and organizing … It’s much like a relationship. You don’t ask them out on a date and then the next day propose marriage. You have to bring them through the stages and develop this relationship … Make it more like they’re reading a letter from their friends.”

After Obama was sworn into office as President in January 2009, Dunn returned to working full-time for her consulting firm. Nevertheless, she regularly helped advise the White House and participated in a number of Wednesday-evening “pizza-and-politics” sessions at the apartment of Obama senior adviser David Axelrod.

In late April 2009, Dunn agreed to step away from her consulting firm and take the role of White House communications director.

On June 5, 2009, Dunn delivered a speech to the students of St. Andrew’s Episcopal School – a high school in Potomac, Maryland – wherein she urged the youngsters to follow their own inner directives when making major choices in their lives. In the course of her remarks, Dunn said: “And then the third lesson and tip actually comes from two of my favorite political philosophers: Mao Zedong and Mother Teresa – not often coupled together, but the two people that I turn to most to basically deliver a simple point, which is, you’re going to make choices. You’re going to challenge. You’re going to say, ‘why not?’ You’re going to figure out how to do things that have never been done before….”

On October 11, 2009, Dunn was interviewed on CNN’s Reliable Sources and was asked to clarify her then-recent assertion that the Fox News television network – some of whose programming had featured stories that presented President Obama in a negative light – was right-wing “opinion journalism masquerading as news.” Asserting that “Fox News often operates almost as either the research arm or the communications arm of the Republican Party,” she said: “[L]et’s not pretend they’re a news organization like CNN is.”

On October 16, 2009, Fox News host Glenn Beck aired a video of Dunn’s aforementioned reference to Mao Zedong as one of her “favorite political philosophers,” setting off a firestorm of controversy. In response to her critics, Dunn said: “The Mao quote is one I picked up from the late Republican strategist Lee Atwater from something I read in the late 1980s, so I hope I don’t get my progressive friends mad at me.” “The use of the phrase ‘favorite political philosophers’ was intended as irony,” she added, “but clearly the effort fell flat – at least with a certain Fox commentator [Beck] whose sense of irony may be missing.”

On November 12, 2009, Dunn resigned from her post as White House communications director and was replaced by her deputy, Dan Pfeiffer, who had served as communications director for the Obama presidential campaign. Dunn then returned to her full-time position at SKDK, where she became the firm’s managing director.

Also after leaving the Obama White House, Dunn supplemented her SKDK income by charging enormous fees to speak in a variety of different venues. For example, she earned $20,000 per speech from both the Nuclear Energy Institute and the National Association of Realtors.

Ahead of the 2010 midterm elections, Dunn rejected the claim that President Obama represented liberal “elitism,” and instead suggested that Republican voters were being manipulated by the “corporate sponsorship” of the GOP. “The elitism argument is kind of a false one because the president talks about people’s economic interests and middle-class families,” she stated. Democrats would go on to suffer historic losses in the midterms that year, including a net loss of 6 Senate seats and 63 House seats.

In August 2011, Dunn attended President Obama’s 50th birthday party held at the White House. Other notable guests included Hillary Clinton, Jay-Z, Tom Hanks, Stevie Wonder, Chris Rock, Charles Barkley, Kathleen Sebelius, Paul and Nancy Pelosi, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, Tim Kaine, and Al Sharpton.

In October 2012, Dunn served as a debate coach for Barack Obama, helping the latter prepare for his presidential debates with Republican Mitt Romney, who was challenging Obama’s re-election bid.

On October 19, 2012, The New York Times published a piece detailing Dunn’s intermediate status in Washington, D.C. as both an “insider” — for her close ties to the Obama administration — and an “outsider” — as a consultant for her corporate clients. Although Dunn was no longer a government official at that point in time, she was a paid adviser to the Democratic National Committee and had made over 100 visits to the White House since her departure from the administration. The New York Times also noted how Dunn’s SKDK consultancy had recently doubled in size to 60 employees, including “a dozen Washington insiders tied to the Obama administration or the Democratic Party.” Although SKDK officials downplayed their firm’s cronyism, The Times reported on various efforts by SKDK to influence federal policy, including its representation of “a business coalition seeking to reduce tax rates on about $1 trillion in offshore earnings.”

In 2013, Dunn assisted former General Motors executive Debbie Dingell in exploring the feasibility of a U.S. Senate run in Michigan. Dingell ultimately decided to run instead for Michigan’s 6th Congressional District seat in the U.S. House, a position she won in the 2014 midterm elections.

Throughout 2015, Dunn and SKDK advised the Planned Parenthood Federation of America in dealing with the controversy that stemmed from leaked videos which exposed the organization’s practice of selling the body parts and organs of aborted babies for profit. As The New York Times reported on September 26, 2015: “Ms. Dunn said Planned Parenthood had three immediate challenges: to answer the attack, to simultaneously query 67 affiliates about which ones had tissue programs or contacts with the abortion opponents[,] and to reassure supporters and political allies.”

In August 2015, Dunn asserted that President Obama was succeeding in promoting his anti-climate change agenda by framing it as an economic, rather than environmental, initiative. “The climate change, clean energy message was first was framed as a jobs message,” said Dunn. “It was a jobs issue because it was very hard to get peoples’ attention on anything else. It was all about building the economy for the future, less about reducing emissions, though there was a parallel policy set of initiatives.”

In October 2017, Dunn offered public-relations / damage-control advice to Harvey Weinstein, free of charge, with regard to the sexual-harassment allegations that were just beginning to surface against the Hollywood film mogul.

In September 2019, Dunn co-authored a letter demanding that major television networks “no longer book Rudy Giuliani, a surrogate for Donald Trump who has demonstrated that he will knowingly and willingly lie in order to advance his own narrative.”

In 2019 as well, Dunn was hired as a senior advisor to assist with communications strategy for Joe Biden‘s 2020 presidential campaign.

In March 2020, it was reported that Time’s Up — a nonprofit organization committed to combatting sexual harassment and sexual assault against women — was refusing to assist 56-year-old Tara Reade in her effort to bring attention to her rape allegations against then-presidential candidate Joe Biden. Specifically, Reade was accusing Biden of having sexually assaulted her at his U.S. Senate office in 1993, when Reade was a staff assistant there. The refusal by Time’s Up to get involved in the case was undoubtedly related to the nonprofit’s business relationship with SKDK, the public relations / political consulting firm where Anita Dunn, a key Biden advisor, was the managing director.

In January 2021, the Biden transition team – of which Dunn was a co-chairannounced that Ms. Dunn would continue to serve as a senior advisor to the incoming administration. She eventually left that advisory role on August 12, 2021, claiming that the position was intended to be only temporary.

In February 2021, The Guardian reported that according to a newly published book titled Lucky: How Joe Biden Barely Won the Presidency, Dunn, during a private conversation in 2020, had stated that the deadly COVID-19 pandemic “is the best thing that ever happened to him [Biden].” Dunn was referring to the fact that the pandemic: (a) wrecked the thriving Trump economy; (b) gave Biden and the Democrats an issue to use as a perpetual battering ram against Trump while casting themselves as mere onlookers who could do nothing more than watch Trump mismanage the crisis day after day; (c) provided Biden with a face-saving excuse for avoiding virtually all situations where, in a normal campaign, he would have had to interact with voters and the media much more frequently in unscripted settings; and (d) provided a pretext for “protecting” voters from the virus by enabling scores of millions to cast absentee ballots by mail and drop-box – two modes of voting which are famously vulnerable to fraud and corruption.

On May 5, 2022, Dunn returned to her role as a senior advisor to the Biden administration. This move coincided with the appointment of Karine Jean-Pierre to replace the resigning Jen Psaki as White House press secretary.

On May 13, 2022, The Washington Post reported that the phrase “ultra MAGA” — employed by President Biden to smear and demean Republican supporters of Donald Trump — had been conceived by Dunn and the Center for American Progress Action Fund during a six-month period when they collaborated to devise messages designed to stir negative emotions in the hearts of potential voters. Added The Post: “In battleground areas, more than twice as many voters said they would be less likely to vote for someone called a ‘MAGA Republican’ than would be more likely. The research also found that the description tapped into the broad agreement among voters that the Republican Party had become more extreme and power-hungry in recent years.”

In June 2022, The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust (FACT) issued a request for the Office of Government Ethics to investigate Dunn’s failure to file the mandatory public personal financial disclosure forms required of government officials.

By August 2022, Dunn was required to divest millions of dollars from her investment portfolio. As CNBC.com reported at that time:

“White House senior advisor Anita Dunn is being forced to divest an investment portfolio worth an estimated $16.8 million to $48.2 million that ethics attorneys say poses significant conflicts of interest in her new role…. Dunn’s newly released financial disclosures, which are 93 pages long, show extensive stock, options, bond and private equity holdings — a fortune she and her husband, veteran attorney Bob Bauer, have amassed over the years…. Dunn is a founding member of the consulting firm SKDK where she was paid $738,715 over the last roughly 2½ years, according to the White House.”

Following public revelations that Joe Biden had classified government documents in possession at his private residence in Delaware and in his office at the Penn Biden Center in Washington, D.C., The New York Times reported in January 2023 that Dunn was initially “adamant that the White House should keep the public information flow [about the documents] to a trickle and focus instead on how different Mr. Biden’s case was from the broader investigation into his predecessor [Donald Trump].” Specifically, Dunn was said to have “stressed the need to underscore the differences between Mr. Biden’s cooperation with the archives [the National Archives & Records Administration] and Justice Department and Mr. Trump’s defiance.”

Dunn is married to Robert Bauer, who, over the years, has worked as a personal attorney for Barack Obama and as counsel to the Democratic Senatorial and Congressional Campaign Committees.

Further Reading:Profile of Anita Dunn” (Washington Post, 10-14-2009); “Who Is Anita Dunn?” (Christian Science Monitor, 10-22-2009); “Anita Dunn Heads to the White House” (Politico, 4-30-2009); “Anita Dunn” (Linkedin.com).

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