[This piece has been updated with comments from Elaine Chao’s and Mitch McConnell’s offices.]
The rhetoric-heavy impeachment trial may be in the rear view, but lingering in the words of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is a surprising gift. His forceful arguments are helping unmask Anonymous, the senior administration official who penned The New York Times op-ed about the resistance inside the Trump administration and then wrote the best-seller “A Warning,” but has not been found in 17 months.
Social media was abuzz hunting for the author’s identity when the op-ed went viral in 2018. A year later, when the book appeared, the White House laughed it off; the president ignored it; people thought the author was unethical; and the media, thinking it’s just another rant on the Administration, did not devote resources to find the person. But in recent weeks, the president’s trade adviser Peter Navarro started searching for the author, and recently the president said he now knows the identity but won’t say the name. All writers have hard-to-hide fingerprints; they repeat go-to words a little too often, pick distinctive vocabulary, put words together in unique ways, favor subtle punctuation choices and rewrite from their past. The more experience the writer has, the harder it is to hide.
In 2018, on-the-record reporting by press outlets of former Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo said the senior official was female and, among other things, had close ties to Congress. That was a critical key to unlocking a door: it might be McConnell’s wife, Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao. An op-ed in LEO Weekly by Kurt Metzmeier suggested the same theory. Having written many op-eds in my time as a speechwriter for some powerful people in Washington and Detroit, I thought: If she signed it, who wrote it? Finding clues became my unusual hobby. Over time, I gathered almost 600 pages from McConnell’s floor statements and op-eds; media interviews with Chao; and writings by McConnell’s speechwriter from his previous job. I compared them to the op-ed and book.
Spotting trends was easy, particularly with McConnell’s voluminous impeachment rhetoric, and here’s my warning: what I discovered is shocking. I suspect Anonymous is indeed Chao; and she appeared to have help from McConnell’s speechwriter Andrew Quinn, as well as Anonymous’ two literary agents, Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer, both former McConnell aides and both former speechwriters. I know it is hard to digest that McConnell, who so skillfully scored a victory for President Trump with the acquittal, would be involved with his wife in something so outrageous and a betrayal of the president. But look at the evidence and you be the judge. I start with the fingerprints of McConnell’s speechwriter. Remember those SAT words that got the media’s initial attention when the well-written op-ed came out — “lodestar,” “first principles” and “steady state”? Quinn had used them at the American Enterprise Institute, where he was Arthur Brooks’ speechwriter and helped Brooks write his New York Times columns. I also spotted several distinctive words in “A Warning” that appeared in Quinn’s previous writings. Words and phrases such as “apologists,” “burnish,” “myopically focused,” “pernicious,” “Stockholm Syndrome” and “racial animus.” Not exactly your everyday vocabulary.
Quinn studied philosophy at the University of Oxford and previously wrote about the same Greek philosophers and cardinal virtues Anonymous writes at length about in “A Warning.” Here’s one way Anonymous describes character: “You know it when you see it.” Here’s Quinn’s words in The Federalist: “We tend to know such characteristics (sic) we see them.” No one is quoted more in “A Warning” than Friedrich Hayek, a staple in Quinn’s writing. How well do you know him? He is not a common reference point. Quinn, in his writings, like Anonymous in “A Warning,” favors “modern.” (Quinn: “modern American left,” “modern conservatives,” “modern Democratic party,” “modern lie,” “modern men and women,” “modern presumption” and “modern statistics,” to name a few. Anonymous: “modern age,” “modern conservatism,” “modern era,” “modern history,” “modern times” and “modern world”).
Both have an affinity for “lament” in various forms. (Quinn: “he laments,” “smart phone users who lament,” “lamenting our lack of progress” and “boasts with lamentations.” Anonymous uses the word a dozen times in “A Warning,” including: “they lament,” “observers lamented,” “submit more lamentable requests” and “reasonable people once again consider — and lament — democracy’s great weakness.”) Like Anonymous, Quinn favors words that start with “super.” (Quinn: “superabundant,” “supernatural” and “superstar.” Anonymous: “supercharged,” “superheroes” and “super-muscular.”) They both repeatedly set up sentences with “not” and “but” (it’s not this, but this) and favor a contraction hardly used in formal writing — “he’d.”
Similarities are in full display when comparing McConnell’s impeachment rhetoric to Anonymous’ reflections in “A Warning.” Both Anonymous and McConnell summed up how each wanted the impeachment process to work with the same words: “passions,” “sober” and be “fair.” Anonymous: “We must put aside our passions and allow the exercise to run its course. We should demand that our representatives approach the deliberations soberly. Democrats in Congress should not rush to judgment and they are obligated to run a fair process.” McConnell: “The Framers knew impeachments might begin with overheated passions and short-term factionalism . . . So they placed the ultimate judgment not in the fractious lower chamber, but in the sober and stable Senate. They wanted impeachment trials to be fair to both sides.”
During impeachment, McConnell made a habit of quoting Alexander Hamilton, Founding Fathers and Federalist Papers — all favorites of Anonymous in “A Warning.” He repeatedly talked about “factions,” in reference to the Democrats, at times with imagery of “fires.” Ditto for Anonymous, but in reference to the president. (McConnell: “The Framers predicted that factional fever might dominate House majorities from time to time. They knew the country would need a firewall to keep partisan flames from scorching our Republic.” Anonymous: “The President is reluctant to act … all the while ignoring a deadly brushfire sweeping the hearts and minds of a small but menacing faction.”)
They both love the adjective “moral.” Anonymous uses it 35 times in the book, such as “moral compass,” “moral offensiveness,” “moral qualities,” “moral quandaries,” “moral repair” and “moral universe.” Here are examples of McConnell’s use: “moral awareness,” “moral bearings,” “moral bedrock,” “moral clarity,” “moral courage,” “moral importance,” “moral truths” and “moral questions.” Both McConnell and Anonymous favor impactful adjectives, such as “toxic” and “absurd.” They use toy as a verb (Anonymous: “Trump toyed with the shocking proposal.” McConnell: “Democratic presidential candidates and Senate leaders have toyed with killing the filibuster.”) Both prefer the pre-fix “ill-,” as opposed to the more common “mis” or “un” in some cases (Anonymous: “ill-advised,” “ill-considered,” “ill-informed,” “ill-suited” and “ill-tempered.” McConnell: “ill-conceived,” “ill-considered,” “ill-fated” and “ill-informed.”)
Both use “rubble,” not in reference to debris from a fire or building collapse, but in reference to the Founding Fathers. Anonymous: “America’s founders could never have imagined today’s world. The mob attacks the person and the ideas are left in the rubble.” McConnell: “Vote to reject new precedents that would reduce the Framers’ design to rubble.” They use “architects” as the masterminds. Anonymous: “architects of our nation” and “architects of this country.” McConnell: “architects of this impeachment,” “architects of the failed House process.”
Is all of this coincidence? I don’t think so.
It seems to be a shared signature, from the same ghostwriter, who has this style in his writing genes. An examination of the Congressional Record shows some vocabulary that McConnell says on the Senate floor and Anonymous writes in the book are so distinct, hardly any other senators use these terms. One example: “hyperventilating.” McConnell said “hyperventilating” four times last year, the only senator to use the word. Notice how like Anonymous he uses it in reference to the media. Anonymous: “Television talking heads always assume the president’s actions are bigoted, hyperventilating about everything he does.” McConnell: “It started with the angry lies on MSNBC … let me make this crystal clear for the hyperventilating hacks … ”
Both Anonymous and McConnell talk about Trump Derangement Syndrome. Just three other senators mentioned that on the Senate floor in the last two years. Both use the old-time bridal expression cold feet, uttered by only two Senators since 2017. Ditto for words and phrases such as cross the Rubicon and Washington-centric. One of the most rare is bull in a china shop. McConnell: “We think this President is a bull in a china shop.” Anonymous: “The president’s bull-in-a-China shop language.” Although McConnell said it twice during the impeachment trial, since 1995, only three other times has a senator used the phrase. My favorite fingerprint is the quote marks around the word “resistance.” In the op-ed, the word appeared three times, once with quotes and twice without. I thought it was a case of sloppy editing. I wasn’t surprised to see the same quote marks in “A Warning.” But I was surprised when Anonymous declares: “I use ‘resistance’ in quotes,” and then goes on to explain why. Obviously, the quotes are Anonymous’ proud trademark.
Turns out resistance is a go-to-word for McConnell, too. He said it 15 times on the Senate floor last year. In fact, 70% of the time the word was heard, it was McConnell speaking. Each time he said “the resistance” the Congressional Record put the word in quotes. What happened when Sens. Bill Cassidy, John Cornyn, David Perdue, Ben Sasse mentioned resistance? No quote marks. Just as telling as what’s in the book is what’s curiously not in the book — Mitch McConnell’s name. Eighty-four people are named, including 16 current or former members of Congress but no sighting of McConnell. Perhaps someone is protecting her husband from the exposure or returning a favor. In 2018, when the press asked McConnell about Anonymous, he quickly changed subjects, unlike then-House Speaker Paul Ryan, who called for the person to resign.
It’s easy to spot Anonymous is female. Anonymous claims to have listened in “uncomfortable silence” as the President joked about women. This is in character with Chao, who after the #MeToo movement went viral and said at a women’s summit that she was a victim. Unlike others, Chao did so in a silent way, providing no details, yet wanting to be very supportive of women, which Anonymous is in the book. Anonymous says in one instance, “an official came to me exasperated to commiserate.” Women commiserate with women on this topic. Anonymous is very generous, donating book royalties to nonprofit organizations around the world, in character with the multimillionaire Chao, a former Peace Corps director and United Way president. It takes a keen memory to fill a 272-page book; a sharp memory is a trait Chao is blessed with. “If I met you 24 years ago, I can remember the place, the time, the circumstances,” she once told CNN. Emotional events are what you remember with the most clarity. Anonymous was heartfelt writing about the press conference in August 2017 at Trump Tower. It was supposed to be an infrastructure announcement. When reporters asked about the violent incident in Charlottesville that had just occurred, the president responded: “some very fine people” were at the rally. “Those of us watching it live had to pick our jaws up off the floor,” Anonymous writes. Chao watched it standing next to the president, as live as you can get.
Another vivid recollection was John McCain’s passing; as a Senate spouse, Chao had been friends with the late senator for decades. It dawned on Anonymous “one late evening,” after Anonymous felt the president mishandled tributes to McCain, to write the op-ed. It also was at “home one night” that Anonymous imagined how a hypothetical scenario of the cabinet resigning and notifying Congress would play out. Who are you most likely to talk to late in the evening? A colleague? Or a spouse? Anonymous is a traditional Republican, happy with the judicial appointments, tax reform and government deregulation — all McConnell’s top priorities. In a revealing comment, Anonymous credits not the president’s leadership, but Republicans in Congress for passing this agenda. Fittingly, the book also talks about a Chao agenda. Anonymous is outspoken on China and immigration, topics of deep personal interest to Chao, who was born in Taipei. Anonymous also is upset over the president’s mishandling of an infrastructure agreement, which would be of great concern to the Transportation Secretary.
In fact, Anonymous uses several transportation analogies, such as comparing Trump to a “twelve-year old in an air traffic control tower.” These are significant markers. When writers use analogies, they make comparisons to things they know well. The most revealing evidence of all is in the warning itself. Anonymous claims firsthand knowledge that “leading GOP officials would like to dump the President.” Only well-connected people have that knowledge. Anonymous also warns voters: “Don’t focus solely on your pick for the nation’s highest office and play roulette with the rest of the candidates running for the U.S. Senate, House, state offices and so on.” Perhaps a nod to Chao’s husband, who faces re-election this year. The last anonymous to remain anonymous was Deep Throat in the Watergate era. Mark Felt, then-Associate Director of the FBI, concealed his identity for 30 years. But Felt left no digital footprint that could be used to unveil his fingerprints, as Anonymous and McConnell have gifted us.
Anonymous will deny being Anonymous, but the similarity of numerous agendas; contacts; raw emotions; and most importantly, words spoken on the floor of the world’s greatest deliberative body, reveal her identity, I believe.
Ilene Zeldin has served as a speechwriter to Joe Biden, Fritz Hollings, Bill Daley, Rodney Slater, Lloyd Bentsen and Lee Iacocca. She holds a B.A. in journalism from The Ohio State University and an M.B.A. from the University of Dayton.
Denials all around
Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao’s chief of staff, Todd Inman, told LEO she did not write “A Warning.”
“Categorically No, she did not write, help, be involved with, and I suspect won’t even read ‘A Warning,’” Inman said.
U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell’s spokesman Robert Steurer told LEO, “No,” when asked whether Chao, McConnell’s wife, and the senator’s speechwriter Andrew Quinn wrote or helped write the book.
Anonymous’ literary agents and former McConnell staffers Keith Urbahn and Matt Latimer did not respond to an email seeking comment.