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Anita Dunn and SKDK: Power and influence in Biden’s Washington

SKDK, a powerful public relations and political strategy firm, occupies a unique role at the nexus of politics, governance and business

Anita Dunn arrives for a lunch meeting with Senate Democrats at the U.S. Capitol in July 2021 to strategize on promoting President Biden's agenda. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
13 min

Veterans of the Biden campaign gathered earlier this month for a private party at the Washington office of SKDK, a powerful public relations and political strategy firm. The atmosphere was festive, and treats included candy and popcorn from the shop the staffers had once frequented near the campaign’s Philadelphia headquarters.

Their host on the evening of March 3 was the “D” in SKDK — Anita Dunn, a top architect of President Biden’s 2020 victory who followed him into the White House before returning to her company last summer. Dunn had mentored many of the people in the room, including several current and former White House staffers with ties to SKDK.

Earlier that day, unbeknown to many at the party, Dunn had been in the White House as part of a second, one-week assignment at the personal request of Biden himself. She had a badge, an official White House email and an office in the West Wing. She was there in part to fill in for Jen O’Malley Dillon, a White House deputy chief of staff who was on personal leave during a pivotal stretch in Biden’s presidency.

The SKDK party for junior and senior campaign alumni, and Dunn’s second White House stint, which have not been previously reported, underline how Dunn and her firm are a unique force in Biden’s Washington — straddling the line between the private sector and the administration to staff the government, steer the presidency and remake the Democratic Party in Biden’s image.

At the same time, the firm has served a sprawling roster of high-powered clients in recent years, including Fortune 500 companies like AT&T and Pfizer, occasionally foreign governments such as Ukraine, whom the firm helped pro-bono, and political candidates like Wisconsin’s Democratic Gov. Tony Evers. The full list has not been disclosed publicly.

“It’s no surprise that she’s in demand and constantly being asked to go inside,” said Stephanie Cutter, a Democratic strategist who is close to the Biden White House. “The president trusts Anita and relies on her greatly.”

One of Biden’s promises on taking office was to cleanse Washington from the taint of a Trump presidency with a reputation for self-dealing, as Donald Trump and his relatives and associates benefited from their ties to the government. Many have applauded Biden’s efforts, but SKDK’s role shows that Washington still features well-connected operatives moving smoothly between public service and the private sector.

Neither SKDK nor Dunn lobby or represent any clients on matters before the federal government, according to a person close to Dunn, who like others interviewed for this story spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private interactions. Still, Dunn’s role is questioned by some ethics experts, who say she has, by design or not, avoided rules meant to promote transparency.

They cite two main issues: Due to her temporary status and income slightly below a preestablished threshold of $132,552, Dunn did not have to file a public financial disclosure that would have probably shed new light on her clients at SKDK. As a temporary employee, she also did not have to sign the Biden ethics pledge, allowing her to operate by a narrower set of ethics guidelines than regular employees.

“This is a person who is appointed in and out of alternating roles, between being a public official with significant influence over administration policy and a private adviser, creating the appearance of being an influence peddler,” said Walter M. Shaub Jr., who served as director of the Office of Government Ethics from 2013 to 2017.

Dunn has not been accused by ethics experts of violating any rules or breaking any laws, and a White House official stressed that she has complied with all applicable regulations, including providing a private financial disclosure to the White House Counsel’s Office. SKDK vets all potential clients for conflicts and regularly turns away potential business, according to the person close to Dunn.

Beyond Dunn, SKDK’s ties can be found across the administration, where at least eight of the firm’s former employees currently work, according to a Washington Post tally. In addition, at least eight officials who have served in the Biden administration subsequently joined or rejoined the firm. When those who worked on the Biden campaign and transition are also included, a total of at least 19 individuals connected to the Biden operations have worked at SKDK or are working there now.

Dunn declined to be interviewed for this story. Jill Zuckman, a partner at SKDK, said in a statement that the firm’s “political consultants were part of the team that helped elect President Biden and Vice President Harris, and we’re proud that many members of our team were asked to serve in the Biden administration.”

White House spokesman Chris Meagher said in a statement that Dunn is “a trusted advisor who has known the president for a long time,” adding that she returned to “the White House temporarily to bring her expertise and add capacity at a key time.” Meagher said Dunn received “rigorous counseling on her ethics obligations as an SGE, including avoiding any potential conflicts of interest.”

He also said she was treated no differently than any other special employee and her salary level was not set to avoid public scrutiny.

The term SGE refers to a “special government employee,” a person brought into the administration generally for 130 days or less to provide a critical but short-term service.

Dunn has been a fixture in Democratic politics for decades and is a longtime associate of Biden’s. Over the years, she rose from an internship in the White House of President Jimmy Carter to a role as senior adviser to presidential candidates and senators. She joined President Barack Obama’s orbit before he launched his presidential campaign and served a brief stint as White House communications director during his first term.

Dunn helped Biden prepare for a potential 2016 campaign for president, which he chose not to launch, and signed onto Biden’s 2020 organization before his campaign officially launched, assuming a more expansive role after his disappointing fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. She co-chaired Biden’s transition and then entered the White House as a senior adviser focused on communications and messaging, part of an insular group of Biden’s closest confidants.

Dunn came into the White House under an agreement that she would stay for a just short time, to help establish the press and communications offices, according to the person close to Dunn. She left last August and returned to SKDK, but has remained an empowered outside adviser.

“It’s little wonder that the Biden administration in general and the president in particular would feel indebted to her in particular, for advice, because she got them there,” said Doug Sosnik, a former senior adviser in President Bill Clinton’s White House, who has known Dunn for decades.

Her role is also an obvious selling point for potential clients looking for consultants who understand Biden’s Washington and have connections to its power centers. “All good factors for any business,” said Sosnik.

While the SKDK’s success predated Biden’s presidency, Sosnik said, if the firm has not been even more profitable during Biden’s tenure in office, it would “defy the law of political gravity.”

The company’s revenue have increased year-to-year for more than a decade, according to the person close to Dunn. There is no increase corresponding to the leaves Dunn took from the firm, this person added. For her most recent White House employment, her clients were advised that she would be on leave there for up to two weeks and could not contact them, according to this person.

“She is highly respected for her decades-long work in the public arena and has been an indispensable part of President Biden’s brain trust from well before he decided to run for president. I can’t imagine that any potential client doesn’t know that already,” said Pete Rouse, a former Obama White House chief of staff.

Dunn continues to counsel Biden whenever he seeks her input, and she regularly advises Cabinet officials and White House aides, according to the person close to Dunn. A video released by the White House of Biden preparing for his State of the Union address featured Dunn sitting on a couch in the White House next to press secretary Jen Psaki and communications director Kate Bedingfield.

From March 1 to 8, Dunn was back in the White House under the classification of “special government employee,” working at the president’s request, according to the person close to Dunn. She was unpaid, according to a White House official, helping fill in during the absence of O’Malley Dillon, whose father had recently died.

That one-week White House stint came at a crucial moment in Biden’s presidency as he delivered his State of the Union address, had just made his first Supreme Court nomination and was confronting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — major developments that also factored into Dunn’s return, people familiar with the arrangement said.

Her brief return overlapped with the party at SKDK, which marked the two-year anniversary of the Super Tuesday primary victories that cemented Biden’s hold on the Democratic nomination. Among the more than 75 Biden campaign veterans whom Dunn feted at the party were many who now work in the White House, including top aides Mike Donilon, Bruce Reed, Steve Ricchetti, Dana Remus and Cedric L. Richmond.

Bob Bauer, Dunn’s husband who served as White House counsel in the Obama administration and was intimately involved in Biden’s campaign, also attended the party. Bauer provided advice during the presidential transition to Remus, the incoming White House counsel.

In her remarks at the party, Dunn recounted Biden’s difficult path to the Democratic nomination, according to multiple people familiar with her comments, including the chaos surrounding the Iowa caucuses and the candidacy of wealthy former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Dunn joked that Bloomberg probably paid for a wing of SKDK’s office, given the amount of money his various political groups have paid her firm over the years, according to the people.

She also poked fun at Biden’s poor showing in the Iowa and New Hampshire contests, joking that the campaign had always planned to finish fourth and fifth in the first two states, followed by second in Nevada and first in South Carolina. “The 4-5-2-1 strategy,” she quipped.

Dunn then listed all the states Biden won on Super Tuesday, concluding with Massachusetts, at which point the crowd erupted into cheers. That victory was a particular source of pride for Biden staffers because they defeated Sen. Elizabeth Warren in her home state.

The party was for people who worked for Biden before Super Tuesday and never had a chance to celebrate due to the pandemic, according to the person close to Dunn. It was originally slated to be held outdoors but was moved indoors to SKDK at the last minute due to cold weather and the easing of coronavirus restrictions, according to this person.

Dunn herself helped underwrite the party, which was planned long before her second White House stint, the person said, adding that while SKDK provided the use of its office, it did not fund the event.

Guests left with a Biden-themed party favor: an ice-cream-cone-shaped stress ball with a campaign logo on it. Biden is known for his love of ice cream.

Norm Eisen, an ethics counsel in the Obama White House, said Dunn’s arrangement with the White House was proper — and in fact exactly what the law envisions for outsiders with special abilities or expertise.

“The law recognizes that you want to have people like that who will come in and deal with problems,” Eisen said, adding that such individuals still face strict ethics rules.

But officials at the liberal Revolving Door Project noted that Dunn’s $129,000 annual salary for her first Biden White House stint — prorated for the time she actually served — fell just below the $132,552 threshold that would have required her to publicly list clients who had paid her more than $5,000 in the two previous years. (Regular White House officials with similar seniority received the maximum $180,000 salary and filed public disclosures.)

“That’s just really damaging from the perspective of public trust, we think,” said Eleanor Eagan, research director on the governance team at the Revolving Door Project. “She should really have been subject to these rules.” Eagan noted that Dunn extended her stay beyond the 130-day norm for special employees.

As a special government employee, Dunn also avoided an additional Biden ethics rule that restricts former White House officials from coordinating or advising lobbying efforts for one year, even if they do not directly contact officials themselves. A person familiar with SKDK said Dunn has not engaged in such “shadow lobbying.”

Dunn is not the only SKDK employee to enter the administration as an SGE. Kendra Barkoff Lamy spent five months as a senior adviser at the Environmental Protection Agency and Michael Czin worked for four months as a senior adviser in the White House Counsel’s Office.

SKDK veterans are stationed throughout the administration, often in pivotal positions involving communications. In that sense the firm has been critical to shaping the Biden administration’s public message.

They include such top officials as Kate Berner, the White House deputy communications director; Herbie Ziskend, senior communications adviser to Harris; Adam Hodge, spokesman for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; and Bridget Bartol, deputy chief of staff at the Department of Energy. Karen Olick recently returned to SKDK after serving as the chief of staff at the Department of Homeland Security.

While Dunn’s client list is not public, she works with a range of foundations, nonprofit and for-profit entities, according to the person close to her, including such diverse organizations as AT&T and the Center for American Progress Action Fund, a liberal advocacy group.

AT&T spokesman Alex Byers said Dunn, working for the company for more than a decade, “has not been the account lead on the firm’s work with us in recent years but has provided periodic counsel.”

The Center for American Progress Action Fund hired Dunn to work on a research project about how to brand the Republican Party, according to the organization.

SKDK is also active in electoral politics, working for the campaigns of Reps. Shontel M. Brown (D-Ohio) and Troy A. Carter (D-La.), who each won special elections in 2021 as candidates aligned with Biden, filings with the Federal Election Commission show. The firm has also worked for a political action committee called Abolish the Electoral College, according to the filings.

Alice Crites contributed to this report