Ever since a “senior official in the Trump administration” penned an anonymous 2018 New York Times column attacking President Trump as unfit for office, Washington has been engrossed in a high-stakes whodunit. After an exhaustive investigation, the White House believes it’s cracked the case, identifying Trump's turncoat as his former deputy national security adviser, Victoria Coates, according to people familiar with the internal probe.
Rather than fire Coates, the White House has quietly transferred her to the Department of Energy, where she awaits special assignment in Saudi Arabia -- far from the president.
Trump effectively demoted Coates just four months after promoting her last fall to the No. 2 spot on his National Security Council. The move was made amid a whisper campaign, started in January, that identified Coates as “Anonymous,” the person who wrote the Times Op-Ed and a subsequent book, “A Warning,” claiming to be part of a cabal of “fellow Republicans" resisting Trump and his policies from inside the administration.
The Washington press corps has for the most part dismissed the whispers as “unsubstantiated rumors” circulated on the Internet.
But the sources said the identification of Coates was based on circumstantial evidence generated from a months-long White House investigation led by sleuths within the NSC. Top White House adviser Peter Navarro, who works with the NSC on trade and other issues, also was heavily involved in the probe of Coates.
She declined to discuss the matter on the record with RealClearInvestigations and has retained an attorney, friends say, although several colleagues have rushed to her defense, insisting the White House has the wrong person. But a source involved in the NSC probe who asked not to be identified said there was little doubt. “It’s her,” the source said of Coates. “That’s why she was shown the door.”
The multiple sources interviewed by RealClearInvestigations either participated in the investigation of Coates or have direct knowledge of it. They spoke only on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter. They say their evidence exposing Coates includes the following:
- Computer textual analyses revealing strikingly similar language, turns of phrase and historical references by both Coates and Anonymous.
- Firsthand accounts by Anonymous of events —including during the presidential transition — witnessed only by Coates and a small number of others, the latter of whom were ruled out as suspects.
- Hawkish foreign policy views held by Anonymous, many of which have been rejected by Trump.
- The fact that Coates and Anonymous share a high-profile Washington literary agent with an author roster of disaffected ex-Trump officials.
- Coates' long history of writing anonymously, and
- Personal details revealed by Anonymous that are consistent with Coates’ biography.
For political reasons, the White House decided against officially unmasking Coates and firing her, at least not before the Nov. 3 election, the sources said. Publicly outing her would merely create an unwelcome distraction ahead of the election. Coates is a well-connected conservative, who has a staunch ally in Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas. White House political operatives want to avoid the divisions that marked the 2016 race, and are focused on unifying the party ahead of this summer's GOP presidential convention.
Illustrating the sensitivity of the internecine GOP affair is the insistence of some ex-Trump White House officials that Coates is wrongly accused. “The suggestion that Victoria is ‘Anonymous’ is preposterous,” said K.T. McFarland, Trump’s first deputy national security adviser, who helped recruit Coates to the NSC and then supervised her for much of 2017. She said Coates was a committed member of the Trump team.
McFarland added that Coates denied being the author not only to her, but also to White House security officials, who include FBI agents.
“Victoria herself has denied being ‘Anonymous' during her routine security clearance review,” she told RCI. “Anyone familiar with the security clearance process knows that it would have been a criminal offense, punishable by jail time, for her to lie about this.”
Although “A Warning” opens with a preemptive denial that it discloses any classified information, the Justice Department has been looking into a potential violation of a federal regulation requiring officials with access to classified information to get prior approval before publishing books about their roles in the government. Coates signed a federal non-disclosure agreement, or NDA, when she joined the White House in 2017.
Related: How 'Anonymous' in the West Wing Meant Cruz Control
Related: Coates' 'Linguistic Fingerprints’ Appear to Match 'Anonymous’
The probe has exposed a less prominent faction secretly undermining Trump inside the White House, sources say: not just Democratic holdovers from the Obama White House, but disloyal “Never-Trump” Republicans, who, as Anonymous complained in the book, don’t believe the president can be trusted to uphold "conservative principles.” The author admitted conspiring with several other “like-minded” officials to obstruct Trump and his policies and directives from the inside.
White House investigators say they are looking into at least four other White House staffers whom they suspect were part of the “resistance” allegedly with Coates. The behind-the-scenes story of how the White House fixed on Coates as the anti-Trump mole is told here for the first time.
The Hunt for ‘Anonymous’
In September 2018, the New York Times agreed to hide the identity of a senior administration official bashing Trump in an opinion piece headlined “I Am Part of the Resistance Inside the Trump Administration.” The author claimed to be one of several “like-minded” officials “thwarting" the president’s agenda and even plotting to try to remove him from office.
Incensed, Trump declared the screed an act of “treason” and ordered an investigation to unmask the “gutless” official. The White House drew up a short list of suspects, but the search soon fizzled out for lack of leads. The mystery went unsolved for more than a year, as the White House continued to spring leaks compromising the president, mostly from within the NSC, including some that led to his impeachment.
The major break came in November 2019, when the same anonymous official doubled down on anti-Trump grievances with the release of “A Warning.” The best-selling expose leaked details of the president’s private conversations and trashed him as "unjust” and a "nasty man,” as well as a “misogynist” and "grifter in chief.”
“He should be fired,” wrote the disgruntled insider in the book’s final chapter. “The Trump administration is an unmitigated catastrophe.”
The book dared the president to try to unmask the nameless author, boasting the text had been “carefully written to prevent any inadvertent disclosure.” But to White House sleuths, the 260-page book offered a wealth of clues, and the author’s challenge only intensified the desire to track down and unmask the rogue aide.
At first, the 51-year-old Coates was not an obvious suspect because she was not known to clash with the president and seemed to go along with his policies, even though she was a longtime and loyal operative of Cruz, once a leading critic of Trump. Over the course of the months-long investigation, more than 30 other suspects were considered and abandoned before the focus settled on Coates. Unlike other widely rumored suspects who eventually were ruled out -- including former NSC official Fiona Hill and former Pentagon speechwriter Guy Snodgrass -- Coates checked virtually all the boxes.
After a careful deconstruction of details in the book, the White House investigators found that Coates’s profile, as well as her persona as a highly opinionated moralist, matched up with that of the clandestine Trump official.
Anonymous is a woman, the investigators deduced, noting the author’s disapproving remarks alleging a Trump habit of addressing accomplished female professionals as “sweetie” and “honey.” The official’s area of responsibility was, like Coates’, national security and foreign policy -- with expertise on Syria, Iraq, Iran, Israel and other Mideast hot spots. The book’s author claims to have been present, as Coates was, at many White House meetings, including with the president. The author shows an insider's understanding of the workings of the NSC and, most telling, started work during Trump’s presidential transition, as Coates did.
“That gave her away,” another source involved in the investigation said. “She was in those early meetings and briefings. That put her high on the suspect list.”
By January, Coates was the prime suspect.
Authorship Recognition Tools
The sources said that to crack the identity of the rogue Trump official, investigators ran previously published works authored by Coates through forensic author identification programs, and they matched the prose style of Anonymous.
Investigators were able to profile the author of the op-ed and book by sentence structure, grammar, punctuation and syntax. They then compared that writing profile to Coates'. The stylistic traits synced up, sources said.
Researchers have found that authorship recognition tools can identify an author with a high level of accuracy when there are several thousand words of available content to analyze, as was the case with the sample size the White House analyzed. Coates’ own body of written work spans two decades and includes several books and dozens of columns, as well as policy papers, speeches and a doctoral thesis.
In short, the authors share the same punchy but at times breezy writing style, with pithy sentences punctuating a fluid narrative.
What’s more, the same manners of expression and phrases, such as “like-minded” and “clear-eyed,” kept turning up in the writings of both Coates and the secret Trump betrayer. The two also shared distinct vocabulary -- such as the uncommon “sextant” -- another linguistic fingerprint that pointed to the same authorship.
Deepening suspicions, both Anonymous and Coates boast of being “students of history,” and tend to cite the same historical periods. With a Ph.D.in art history, Coates has written extensively about the rise and fall of Athens. She did so in her book “David’s Sling: A History of Democracy in Ten Works of Art,” and a 2012 column for the conservative blog RedState.com about how the U.S. has “claimed classical Athens as an ideological ancestor."
Anonymous spends no fewer than five pages of the book lecturing readers about the fall of Athens, calling it a “cautionary tale of how self-government could go wrong” and descend into mob rule, even in America. “Like Athens, we also have a Cleon in our midst, a foul-mouthed populist politician who uses rhetoric as a loaded gun,” the author writes, comparing Trump to the boorish Athenian representative.
Anonymous and Coates are obsessed with the same political figure from ancient Rome: Cicero. They also share an affection for Alexis de Tocqueville. As in “David’s Sling,” the anonymous author invokes the French historian, writing that Americans have a duty as citizens to get involved to preserve democracy. They can start, Anonymous says, “by firing Donald Trump” this November.
Other figures whom both write or talk about admiringly: British-Austrian free market economist F.A. Hayek, the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, former President Ronald Reagan, and Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah. In 2012, FEC records reveal, Coates personally donated at least $1,500 to Romney’s campaign for president. “Those who know Mitt believed he would have been a capable leader,” Anonymous wrote on page 114.
Coates previously wrote speeches for Cruz about the importance of reestablishing the “first principles” advanced by America’s founders. Anonymous also cares deeply about these “first principles.” In the Times piece, the author complained, “Anyone who works with [Trump] knows he is not moored to any discernible first principles that guide his decision making.” Anonymous hits that concept in the book, warning against straying from “first principles” while citing the “Founding Fathers."
In addition, whoever wrote “A Warning” evidently worked with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner in the White House. Kushner is the president’s point man on the Middle East. Coates was promoted in 2017 to work directly with Kushner on Israel and has met with him to help hammer out a Middle East peace plan.
Ideologically, Coates and Anonymous are cut from the same cloth. Both are committed to stopping Iran from developing nuclear weapons in order to protect Israel. Both champion free trade and oppose Trump’s “America First” brand of “protectionism” and “isolationism,” as Coates made plain during the Cruz campaign.
Like Coates, Anonymous supported the Iraq War and still defends George W. Bush and his administration for acting on what proved to be flawed intelligence on weapons of mass destruction. The 2003 invasion was justified because, Anonymous writes, it was “at least based on real information collected at the time, backed by intelligence community analysts, and accepted by bipartisan majorities in Congress.”
A protégé of Bush administration Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Coates embedded with the U.S. military to cover the Iraq War for RedState.com, a blog run by Erick Erickson, an early critic of Trump but who has since modulated his opposition. She filed positive reports from Baghdad, while knocking down criticism that the war was a debacle.
NSC investigators put stock in the fact that Coates has a history of concealing her identity in her writings. For years she blogged anonymously for RedState.com. The site eventually revealed that Coates was the blogger writing under the pseudonym “Academic Elephant.” In February 2018, several months before the anonymous Times opinion piece appeared, a Reddit user posted an unusual question using the same “Academic Elephant” pseudonym Coates employed. “Could I be sued by the company I work for if I write an anonymous opinion piece for the local newspaper, if everything I say is true?” the poster asked, adding that “I’m reasonably certain that I’ll have support from my coworkers." Anonymous expressed a similar concern in the opening pages of “A Warning,” noting that Trump has a habit of suing critics “to intimidate and silence them.” Fear of such a lawsuit is one of the reasons offered by the author for choosing to remain anonymous.
Anonymous also used Reddit to promote the book, hosting a Q&A on Nov. 26, 2019.
Further, both share an affinity for Philadelphia. In more than one passage in her book, Anonymous makes a point to remind readers that Philadelphia was the birthplace of American liberty. When she’s not in Washington, Coates lives with her family in a renovated Victorian mansion in a tony neighborhood of Philadelphia called Chestnut Hill. In her blog bio, moreover, she proudly described herself as a “Philadelphian.” Her family has deep roots in the area dating back to 1709. Coates is descended from Andrew Curtin, Pennsylvania’s governor during the Civil War.
There’s another Pennsylvania connection: On page 230, Anonymous quotes from a lesser-known Founding Father -- John Dickinson -- to further support her preoccupation with following “first principles.” Dickinson is well-known within Coates’ home state as the author of “Letters From a Farmer in Pennsylvania,” and is cited and quoted by her family-tied Commonwealth Foundation of Pennsylvania, a libertarian think tank recently chaired by her husband and where Coates herself once served as a senior fellow.
Anonymous quotes another figure who’s not exactly a household name: American historian Bernard Bailyn. But Coates would know him from her days earning her masters in art history from Williams College – Bailyn’s alma mater. His writings are required reading there for early American history courses.
Anonymous and Coates also share a passion for Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet “Common Sense” was required reading at their prep school. Anonymous waxed nostalgically about a war veteran teaching her about Paine. Coates has counted among her “mentors” a war veteran who taught history at her Pennsylvania boarding school.
Another clue, sources said, was the fact that Coates shares with Anonymous the same book agent — the Washington-based Javelin Literary Agency. One of Javelin's founding partners, Keith Urbahn, has been a close friend of hers since 2006, when Rumsfeld asked them to conduct research for his 2011 memoir. Emails previously obtained under the Freedom of Information Act in an unrelated case show Coates and Urbahn worked side-by-side on the book project for several years, reporting to an office on M Street in downtown D.C. that Rumsfeld opened under the name, DHR Holdings LLC.
In 2016, Urbahn helped Coates secure a three-book deal with Encounter Books focusing on political culture. Coates knocked out the first manuscript, “David’s Sling,” while still working on the Cruz campaign that year. The second book, tentatively titled “Seeing the Light: A History of Christianity in Twelve Works of Art,” was due for release last year, but was delayed for undisclosed reasons. Industry sources confirmed that Coates is late delivering the manuscript. Investigators believe she was tied up writing “A Warning,” published in November. Urbahn happened to help broker that book deal, too.
But Javelin denied in a statement that Coates is the author in question, brushing aside the fact it counts Coates as a client as just a “bizarre” coincidence.
“To be very clear, so there is no chance of any misunderstanding: Dr. Coates is not Anonymous,” Javelin said. “She did not write it, edit it, see it in advance, know anything about it, or as far [as] we know ever read it."
That’s an utterly unambiguous denial. But here’s the problem: That’s exactly what Anonymous said would be the response to any such attempt to out her in the book's Introduction: “If asked, I will strenuously deny I am the author of this book.”
Javelin maintains a full stable of anti-Trump authors, including former National Security Adviser John Bolton and fired FBI Director James Comey. The agency just signed Marie Yovanovitch, the ousted State Department official who testified against Trump during his impeachment. Since landing a $3 million advance for Comey, Javelin has become "a popular destination for Trump administration officials, especially those contemplating an exit,” The New York Times recently reported in a lengthy profile of Urbahn and his partner, Matt Latimer, who also worked for Rumsfeld and is chummy with Coates.
Yet other Coates defenders insist that she is a loyal member of Team Trump and that they never heard her say anything disparaging about the president. “The rumors are absolutely false and I’m ashamed of those pushing this B.S.,” said Fred Fleitz, who worked closely with Coates while serving as chief of staff to Bolton.
Former NSC spokesman Michael Anton, who worked alongside Coates in the early days of the Trump administration, said he doubts she was involved in any skullduggery. “I don’t believe it,” he said.
Added K.T. McFarland: “‘Anonymous’ sanctimonious, elitist tone, and [the writer’s] implication that Trump is an immoral idiot doesn’t match up with the Victoria Coates I have known for years.”
“She went out on a limb to support Trump when few in the Republican foreign policy community did,” she added.
‘Very Anti-Trump in Private’
While Coates’ supporters are adamant that she is not Anonymous, some co-workers said she was careful to hide her opposition to Trump and his agenda during meetings with principals.
“She was very anti-Trump in private,” said a former NSC official who worked with Coates on the Mideast desk. “She even defended Obama holdovers to me. They’re all fighting Trump."
If Coates supports Trump, she has not been vocal about it. There are no examples of her publicly praising the president, based on a search of the Lexis-Nexis database of her speeches, articles and interviews, though she has expressed support for some of his policies.
A review of Coates’ Twitter feed going back to the November 2016 election turns up no tweets in which she supports Trump directly, though she remarked in a March 2017 tweet that she was “proud" to have joined the NSC team. Coates was restrained even after Trump upset Hillary Clinton, posting no congratulatory tweets.
On the other hand, Coates reportedly was furious that Cruz decided several weeks before the election to throw his support behind Trump, after famously snubbing him at the GOP convention.
“She was livid when the Texas Republican endorsed Trump and cited national security as one of his reasons for supporting the Republican nominee,” according to a Politico.com article citing people familiar with her alleged meltdown over her boss’ about-face.
Supporters struggled, moreover, to explain why Coates would accept what effectively was a demotion -- just four months after being promoted to deputy national security -- if she were innocent of the accusations.
Fleitz, who says he has not read "A Warning," speculated that Coates was ready to move on from the NSC after serving three years there, and that her reassignment to the Energy Department had been in the works for a while. But her failure to appear at the Hudson Institute for a recent speech on the White House's “plan for peace in the Middle East” made it look more like a shake-up.
The event’s moderator was clearly taken off guard. “I feel a little bit like Clint Eastwood talking to the empty chair,” the moderator nervously quipped, motioning to a seat the think tank had reserved for Coates on the stage with an unopened bottle of water beside it.
Just two days before Coates was officially reassigned on Feb. 20, Trump told reporters he knew the identity of the anonymous official, but he would not divulge the person’s identity.
“Can’t tell you that, but I know who it is,” he said. “I know all about ‘Anonymous.’”