Between playing United States President Donald Trump in Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s debate preparation and helping to vet Kamala Harris as his running mate, battle-tested election attorney Bob Bauer has been at the centre of Biden’s presidential campaign.
Now, days before Tuesday’s election, he is focused on the end game: advising an army of lawyers who are monitoring early voting and preparing for the Trump-Biden showdown. They are working to ensure voter access, combating disinformation and voter intimidation, and preparing for attacks on the legitimacy of the vote. Republican Trump has deployed his own coalition of lawyers to tackle election disputes.
“It’s a pretty heated environment,” Bauer, who served as White House counsel in Barack Obama’s administration, said in an interview. “But we don’t want there to be undue concern and alarm that would discourage people from voting. We can respond anywhere in the country to these issues immediately.”
White-bearded and bespectacled, Bauer, 68, is on leave from New York University Law School, where he is a professor. But he spent most of his career at Perkins Coie law firm, where he founded the political law practice and fought in the trenches of Washington’s partisan warfare.
“He looks and has the temperament of the college professor and he’s a hard-as-nails litigator and strategist,” said fellow NYU law professor Samuel Issacharoff, who worked on Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns under Bauer, the general counsel.
As senior adviser to the Biden campaign, Bauer has been helping the team prepare for a possible contested election and meet unprecedented challenges, including Trump’s unfounded claims that the surge in mail-in voting from the coronavirus pandemic is leading to widespread fraud and his calling for supporters to be ad hoc poll watchers.
“Trump may fantasise or claim he has all sorts of ways of stomping out the election results, terrorising polling places and the like, and that’s just not the case,” said Bauer. “If he tries, he won’t succeed.”
Trump campaign spokeswoman Thea McDonald said people should be concerned about the possibility that “Biden doesn’t accept the results when President Trump wins reelection.”
“The President and the Trump campaign have long fought for a free, fair, transparent election,” McDonald said.
Bauer has worked behind the scenes for Democrats for decades. He advised on legal strategy in the 2000 battle between Democratic nominee Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush, before the U.S. Supreme Court halted the Florida recount and handed the presidency to Bush.
As general counsel to Obama’s 2012 campaign, Bauer argued a case that overturned Republican efforts to reduce in-person early voting in Ohio the weekend before the election.
As White House counsel, Bauer helped shepherd the nomination of then-U.S. Solicitor General Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court and worked to release Obama’s long-form birth certificate following Trump’s false claims that the president was not born in the United States.
He “literally created the field of political law,” said Perkins Coie partner Marc Elias, a top election lawyer himself who is leading a team for Biden focused on state litigation over voter access and ballot counting.
Michael Toner, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission, recalled how Bauer filed racketeering complaints against various Republican committees in the 1990s.
“He can be and has been very aggressive over the years,” said Toner, a Republican lawyer. But, he said, Bauer was “never nasty, never personal.”
In one memorable incident during the 2008 Democratic primary season, Bauer, who was working for Obama, crashed a press call hosted by rival Hillary Clinton’s campaign.
“It’s impossible to stay angry at him,” said Howard Wolfson, Clinton’s then ticked-off communications director, who ended up debating Bauer on the call.
Bauer did not expect to be at the center of another presidential campaign at this stage of his career. “I got drawn back in,” he said, because of his relationship with Biden, who he helped vet as Obama’s running mate, and their shared view that the “soul of America” is at stake.
A bit of Bauer’s family history provides some perspective on his willingness to do battle again. His father, also Robert Bauer, was questioned during the McCarthy hearings in 1953 by chief counsel Roy Cohn, who later represented Trump when he was a young real estate developer.
The elder Bauer worked at Voice of America at the time and pushed back on accusations programming was not sufficiently anti-Communist, according to a memoir by his wife, Maria Bauer.
He went on to a career in the U.S. foreign service, but the injustice of the McCarthy era stayed with him.
“One way to get my father going later in life was to bring up McCarthy and Roy Cohn,” said Bauer, whose father died in 2003.
Bauer plans to resume teaching when the campaign is over. “I don’t expect to return to active political life after the election,” he said.
But, he said his father would have viewed his role in the 2020 campaign as essential. “I don’t think he would have wanted me to sit this one out.”