As his former boss struggles through the biggest crisis of his political career, Gerald Butts, who was until late last month the most influential aid to Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, appeared before the Justice Committee of the Canadian House of Commons to rebut seemingly damning testimony given last week by Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former Canadian attorney general, who described a campaign of political pressure and "veiled threats" that she said skirted the lines of legality (though she clarified that she wasn't accusing the prime minister or his henchmen of breaking the law).
During the latest development in the corruption drama that has captivated the Canadian public since an explosive report by the Globe and Mail set it off one month ago, Butts - who resigned in the wake of the allegations - defended the prime minister and insisted that Wilson-Raybould's abrupt cabinet transfer (which was widely interpreted as a demotion) was unrelated to her decision to allow prosecution of Quebec-based engineering firm SNC-Lavalin to continue.
Offering his own spin on "nothing to see here", Butts told the committee "I am firmly convinced nothing happened beyond the normal operations of government", adding that Trudeau and his office understood Wilson-Raybould would have the final word on the matter (though, of course, Butts' decision to resign over the scandal would seem to undercut this). Butts, Trudeau and aides within the privy office and prime minister's office were simply trying to encourage Wilson-Raybould to seek a "second opinion," according to the BBC.
Butts admitted that Trudeau had encouraged Wilson-Raybould to consider offering SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution agreement that would allow the company to avoid serious penalties that could lead to more than 9,000 Canadians losing their jobs. Because of the jobs at risk, Butts insisted that Trudeau's and his office's involvement was a matter of public policy and was completely warranted.
"All we ever asked the attorney general to do was consider a second opinion," Butts said.
In what sounded like a blatant attempt to undercut Wilson-Raybould's credibility, Butts offered a dramatically different account of his interactions with the former AG. Whereas she told lawmakers that Butts had told her "there is not solution here that doesn't involve some sort of interference", he said his conversations with the AG on the subject of SNC-Lavalin had been relatively limited.
"That's not what I said," Butts said.
He then produced text messages between the two which suggested that they had been "friends", and insisted that Wilson-Raybould didn't complain about interference until after she had been moved to lead the Ministry of Veterans Affairs.
While Wilson framed the move as political retribution for her decision not to ignore the Trudeau government's advice, Butts said he had proof that this was definitively not the case. He explained that Trudeau moved her to lead the department after the retirement of another cabinet official because he believed she was "the only one who could handle" managing the ministry.
Butt's full statement has been published online, and can be found here.
His testimony comes just days after Treasury board chairwoman Jane Philpott resigned because she could no longer support the Trudeau government in good conscience. Meanwhile, two investigations into Trudeau's involvement in the affair, one by the Canadian government ethics office, and one by the Commons, are underway. While Liberals have (mostly) circled the wagons, the leader of the conservative opposition has called on Trudeau to resign.
For those who are only just becoming acquainted with the SNC-Lavalin scandal, which has already destroyed the Liberal Party's lead in the polls ahead of a crucial election in October, here's a quick explainer courtesy of the Financial Times:
What is SNC-Lavalin accused of?
Global engineering and construction management company SNC-Lavalin is facing charges of fraud and corruption in relation to payments worth C$47.7m made to Libyan officials between 2001 and 2011 under Muammer Gaddafi’s regime. If convicted, the company would be banned from bidding for federal government contracts for a decade.
SNC-Lavalin had hoped that the charges would be settled through a so-called deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), whereby, instead of a criminal trial, the company would pay a fine, enforce compliance measures and retain the ability to bid for contracts.
The company had lobbied federal officials for a DPA in more than 80 meetings between 2016 and 2017, according to the Globe and Mail, a Canadian national newspaper. In October 2018, Canada’s director of the public prosecution service refused to negotiate a DPA with SNC-Lavalin, a decision the company appealed against.
How is Trudeau involved?
In February, the Globe and Mail reported that in the autumn of 2018, Mr Trudeau’s office had “attempted to press” Ms Wilson-Raybould, then Canada’s attorney-general and minister of justice, to intervene in the SNC-Lavalin prosecution case to secure a DPA. In testimony to Canada’s parliamentary justice committee last week, Ms Wilson-Raybould said that she had “experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere” in her handling of the case. She said it was “an inappropriate effort to secure a deferred prosecution agreement with SNC-Lavalin”.
Mr Trudeau was part of the intervention, Ms Wilson-Raybould told the justice committee. She said he had asked her to “find a solution” that would avoid SNC-Lavalin having to cut jobs or move from Montreal. Mr Trudeau has challenged her account and has denied any improper attempt to help the company avoid criminal prosecution. Ms Wilson-Raybould was named minister of veterans affairs in a cabinet reshuffle in January. She resigned a month later, following the publication of the Globe and Mail report. Days later, Gerald Butts, Mr Trudeau’s longtime senior adviser, also resigned, and on Monday, Jane Philpott, a senior cabinet minister close to Ms Wilson-Raybould stepped down, saying that she had “lost confidence in how the government has dealt with this matter”.
What does this mean for Trudeau?
Mr Trudeau said that the conversations with Ms Wilson-Raybould about the SNC-Lavalin case were within the rules. Ms Wilson-Raybould echoed this in her testimony, saying the pressure she experienced was “incredibly inappropriate” but not illegal. The controversy, however, continues to escalate and threatens to overshadow Mr Trudeau’s bid for re-election. His approval ratings had slipped dramatically since he took office in 2015 and recent polls show his ruling Liberal party neck and neck with the opposition Conservatives.
Though it's likely Trudeau will hang on the premiership for now (that is, unless some new evidence contradicting his story surfaces), it's looking increasingly likely that Canadians will reject Trudeau's Liberal agenda at the polls in October and boot the political scion out of office after just one term.