As part of an unprecedented investigation to unmask the senior Trump official who anonymously attacked the president in a New York Times op-ed and bestselling book, White House sleuths employed forensic linguistic techniques they believe establish former Deputy National Security Adviser Victoria Coates as the author, according to several people with direct knowledge of the internal probe.
Forensic linguistics, which analyzes the structure of language, the choice of words and phrases in written content, has been used to uncover the authorship of a wide range of work, including Shakespeare’s plays, the 1996 political novel “Primary Colors” -- anonymously written by journalist Joe Klein -- and more recently, the 2013 crime novel “The Cuckoo’s Calling,” which was published under a pseudonym by the Harry Potter series writer J.K. Rowling.
Authors can also be identified by the frequency of words used in their writings. Each author has a distinctive vocabulary and phraseology developed over years of writing, known as an “idiolect." In short, the more writers write, the more they tend to repeat the same words. And the pattern of repetition creates what’s known in this emerging field of forensics as a “linguistic fingerprint.”
Relying on writing samples alone, White House investigators working primarily out of the National Security Council believe they collected enough evidence to conclude that Coates wrote the September 2018 Times piece and the November 2019 book “A Warning,” said the sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. They also found a raft of other evidence pointing to her as Trump’s secret betrayer.
Main Story: Here's 'Anonymous,' Trump Aides Say, and How They Outed Her
Related: How 'Anonymous' in the West Wing Meant Cruz Control
Coates, who was recently transferred from the NSC to the Energy Department amid rumors she’s “Anonymous,” declined to personally swat down the investigators’ conclusions, speaking only through friends and her book agent, who have denied them.
The investigators declined to provide their analysis in detail. But a comparison by RealClearInvestigations of many of the same primary sources -- writings of Anonymous and Coates’ published works, including several books, dozens of columns and blogs, along with policy papers and speeches – revealed striking similarities.
Both Coates and Anonymous share linguistic traits common to the foreign policy field. And while no single example is conclusive, the accumulation of parallels – including the frequency with which a writer uses specific words and phrases -- suggests the similarities are not coincidence.
For example, Coates and Anonymous are both fond of using the compound adjectives, “like-minded” and “clear-eyed,” and distinctive phrases such as “a cautionary tale” and “currying favor with.”
In a 2012 column, Coates opined that Hong Kong businessmen were “eager to curry favor with” a top political candidate. In a 2015 Heritage Foundation speech, she wrote about “currying favor with Baghdad.” In her book “David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art,” Coates wrote about how an Italian artist wanted “to curry favor with” a wealthy family.
Similarly, Anonymous uses the expression no fewer than three times in “A Warning," noting at one point how candidates vying for posts in Trump's Cabinet “must continuously curry his favor if they hope to ever be nominated.”
Other phrases found in the writings of both authors include: “first principles”; “classical liberalism”; “chilling effect"; “wreaking havoc”; “gone sideways”; “ad nauseum”; “hell-bent”; and “tin-pot” (as in, “tin-pot dictator”).
Parsing the text of Coates’ and Anonymous’ prose reveals other linguistic markers tying them together, including the noun “potentate,” an uncommon term to describe a ruler. Anonymous used “potentate” in her book, while Coates has written the word in her blogs. “Bedlam” is another relatively little-used term that shows up in both their texts – so too are “acuity” and “ennoble.”
In the next to last page of her 260-page book, Anonymous throws out a word most people seldom hear: “sextant.” A sextant is an ancient instrument used for measuring the angular distances between objects.
“History doesn’t make us. We make history,” the clandestine Trump official wrote on page 258, alluding to her own role in trying to change the course of history by sabotaging a president the writer deems immoral. “Its course is changed by the people themselves who, with their values as a sextant, navigate daily moral quandaries.”
Coates also happens to be familiar with the term "sextant.” She used it more than a decade earlier in “Antiquity Recovered: The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum.” “As several series of sextant angles taken from prominent vantage points show, his mission also entailed mapping the surrounding territory,” Coates wrote on page 145, referring to the work of a historical British archaeologist and topographer.
Coates often uses words such as “lavished," “ravaged” and “dashed” in somewhat highbrow formulations. Anonymous speaks in the same parlance. Praise isn’t given, it’s “lavished.” Things aren’t wrecked, they're “ravaged.” Plans aren't scrapped, they're “dashed."
Other evidence tying the authors together as one voice is their use of the word “cement” as a verb.
For example, on page 28 of her 2012 book, “The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection,” Coates writes of “yet another transformation that cements Gradiva’s role as the product of the modern psyche.” Anonymous, likewise, writes in the book, “The feeling of unease was cemented by” and “nailing coffins into the GOP, cementing an end to the party as we know it."
Further suggesting common authorship, the following relatively uncommon, or atypical, verbs also are used repeatedly by both Coates and Anonymous: burnish, lurch, ameliorate, grapple, insinuate, flummox, moor/unmoor.
But their favorite verb by far is “lament.” Anonymous leans on it at least a dozen times in “A Warning,” and Coates also uses “lament” in her columns and books, sprinkling the word like MSG throughout her writings.
Then there are their shared adverbs of choice. They include: “routinely," “demonstrably" and “increasingly."
Another verbal tic showing up in their writings is their frequent use of “albeit.” Over and over, both Coates and Anonymous rely on it as a conjunction.
An additional key linguistic marker helping to identify them as the same author is their frequent use of the descriptors “grim” and “robust.” Other go-to adjectives found throughout both their works are “aspirational” and “intolerable.”
Coates and Anonymous could describe things as sound, sensible, well-planned or reasonable. But they reflexively use the word “coherent” instead. Coates adores the adjective, using it to describe everything from "artistic vision" to “immigration policy” to even “a bombing campaign." "Military strategy" is “coherent." So too is leadership. Anonymous also falls back on the word. “A Warning” describes the need for “a coherent way of thinking” and “a coherent security strategy.”
That’s not the only distinctive lexicon they share.
The following SAT-level words pop up frequently in both their prose, suggesting the same wordsmith behind their usage: “trepidation,” “primacy,” “pernicious,” “affinity,” “salient,” “palatable,” “sycophant,” “chasm,” “encroachment,” “obsequious,” “incendiary,” “dissonant,” “nefarious,” “citadel,” “amenable,” “debacle,” “penchant,” “quintessential,” “impetuous,” and “cacophony.”
A careful parsing exposes a detectable pattern of similar language across both their bodies of work. Whoever wrote “A Warning” appears to have borrowed — in almost plagiaristic manner — most of the same concepts, writing style, phraseology and vocabulary from “David’s Sling” and Coates’ other earlier books.
A close reading of the texts also shows Coates and Anonymous not only share linguistic tics but remarkably similar voice and tone. Both authors wield a wide-ranging intellect but are doctrinaire in their beliefs, highly opinionated and prone to making remarks that come off as snide or even snobbish. Above all, they are moralists.