Important update: Olson has been reinstated.
Conservative lawyer Leif Olson started working for the Trump administration’s Department of Labor (DOL) on August 12. Less than a month later, on August 30, he resigned. On Tuesday, Bloomberg Law published the reporting that precipitated his departure, an expose of his alleged anti-Semitism. The problem? His comments were clearly in jest, but Bloomberg Law pulled them out of context to make them seem anti-Semitic. Now, he’s out of a job, and the reporter is acting like he slew a lion.
“A recently appointed Trump Labor Department official with a history of advancing controversial conservative and faith-based causes in court has resigned after revelations that he wrote a 2016 Facebook post suggesting the Jewish-controlled media ‘protects their own,'” began Bloomberg Law reporter Ben Penn. His article pulls Olson’s clearly sarcastic Facebook thread out of context.
Indeed, Olson had suggested that then-House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) was Jewish, even though he is Roman Catholic. When one commenter called Ryan a “Neo-con,” Olson replied, “No he’s not. Neo-cons are all Upper East Side Zionists who don’t golf on Saturday if you know what I mean.” The commenter replied, “That’s what I meant. He’s a Jew. Everyone knows that.”
Then came the damning comment, from Olson, which Penn noted was time-stamped at 12:46 a.m. Houston time. “It must be true because I’ve never seen the Lamestream Media report it, and you know they protect their own.”
When taken out of context, this seems damning. Yet Tablet Magazine’s Yair Rosenberg helped put the comments in context.
“If one made only a cursory reading of the posts, one might indeed think that Olson was suggesting that House Speaker Paul Ryan was some sort of crypto-Jew and that the Jews look after their own. A closer reading, however, shows just the opposite,” Rosenberg wrote.
That reading requires one key bit of context: Ryan had just defeated Paul Nehlen, a white supremacist anti-Semite who had been boosted by Breitbart, in his local Wisconsin primary. (Nehlen was later banned from Twitter after harassing many Jewish journalists, myself included.) Breitbart had hyped a Nehlen victory and a repudiation of Ryan; instead, Ryan won by nearly 70 percent. With this background, it’s easy to see that Olson’s post was brutally sarcastic from start to finish.
Mocking Breitbart’s breathless boosterism of Nehlen, he wrote: “Establishment insider RINO corporate tool Paul Ryan was finally brought to heel in tonight’s primary by an uprising of the conservatives masses… The guy just suffered a massive, historic, emasculating 70-point victory. Let’s see him and his Georgetown cocktail-party puppetmasters try to walk that one off.”
Rosenberg was far from alone in pointing out the obvious. Vox’s Dylan Matthews, no fan of the Trump administration, wrote, “You do not need a PhD in linguistics to correctly identify this as obvious sarcasm — another commenter on the thread praised the post’s ‘epic sarcasm.’ Conservatives, especially ones of a neoconservative bent on foreign policy, have made sarcastic jokes like this about what they perceive as (and what sometimes, as in the case of Nehlen, is) anti-Semitic criticism of neoconservatism, a movement primarily founded by Jewish intellectuals.”
Matthews went so far as to call for Olson’s reinstatement. “The Department of Labor ought to rehire Olson so he can keep advising them to pursue policies I disagree with. Not doing so would damage our societal immune system and make it easier for false charges like this to stick in the future,” he wrote.
New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait agreed. “I’m not endorsing Olson or his policies, and I’m sure he has all kinds of objectionable beliefs. But firing him as an anti-Semite over this post strikes me as terribly unfair,” he tweeted.
I'm not endorsing Olson or his policies, and I'm sure he has all kinds of objectionable beliefs. But firing him as an anti-Semite over this post strikes me as terribly unfair.
— Jonathan Chait (@jonathanchait) September 3, 2019
PJ Media reached out to the Department of Labor, asking if they would consider rehiring Olson, but the DOL did not respond to multiple requests for comment by press time.
Jake Hyman, a New York spokesman for the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), backtracked after slamming the Facebook post. “The post in question is clearly anti-Semitic, and if it does indeed belong to Leif Olson of the U.S. Labor Department, we call on him to apologize and affirm that he no longer harbors such virulently hateful views,” Hyman told Bloomberg Law.
Yet after hearing Olson’s explanation, Hyman gave an updated statement to PJ Media and Bloomberg Law. “We appreciate Mr. Olson’s clarification that he intended to be sarcastic with his posts, and accept his explanation of the content in question,” he said.
For his part, Olson responded with a public Facebook comment.
“Greetings, Bloomberg readers. I never thought I’d see the day when making fun of alt-right anti-Semites led to being branded an anti-Semite, but here we are,” he began. “There was no ‘revelation’ of the Facebook post because there was nothing to reveal. It was publicly available on my feed from the moment it was published until last night, when I replaced it with screenshots that redacted commenters’ names to keep them from being harassed.”
He also set the record straight on a few of his cases that Bloomberg Law misrepresented.
“Olson also was known in Houston-area legal circles for his appellate work challenging the rights of same-sex couples after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled gay marriage is legal; intervening to block defrauded consumers from receiving $10 million that Target Corp. had agreed to pay in a class settlement; and urging the high court to invalidate the Obama administration’s policy giving certain illegal immigrants a pathway to citizenship,” Ben Penn had written.
Olson noted that the same-sex marriage case he worked on was filed two years before Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) legalized same-sex marriage; that the Target case involved arguing that persons who had not yet been injured by the data breach were not owed anything in a settlement; and that he represented the Cato Institute in the lawsuit regarding illegal immigration. He directed readers to examine the cases for themselves, rather than taking Ben Penn’s reporting as gospel truth.
Greetings, Bloomberg readers. I never thought I’d see the day when making fun of alt-right anti-Semites led to being…
Penn responded to criticism by pointing out the actions that cost Olson his job. “To Leif Olson’s friends & others who take issue with this reporting, I sent a screenshot of a public FB post to DOL, seeking comment. 4 hours later I received this response: ‘Today, the Department of Labor accepted the resignation of Leif Olson effective immediately.'”
This would not alleviate anyone’s concerns. Penn’s action here seems incredibly devious and calculated to cost Olson his job. Worse, the Bloomberg Law article uses the opportunity of Olson’s resignation to probe “questions about the Trump administration’s vetting system for political appointees.”
Penn mentions three Trump appointees who departed over “personal controversies,” referencing one whose comments were seen as “racist, sexist, and homophobic,” one who faced domestic violence allegations, and one who faced assault allegations from his ex-wife — allegations that were later dropped. This section of the article suggests that Olson should not have been hired in the first place due to his allegedly anti-Semitic comments: that this is a personnel scandal for the Trump administration.
Again, seemingly responding to criticism, Penn took to Twitter to note, “Lost in all of this is that Olson was part of a team of political appointees tasked with the heavy lift of drafting wage-hour regulations that are high priorities for Trump White House, business community. They’re now down one adviser.”
In other words, Penn’s misleading article did not just cost this conservative lawyer his job in the Department of Labor, it also frustrated the Trump administration’s work to benefit the business community. It turns out twisted reporting has real-world consequences. Who knew?
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.