There were two Nigel Wrights in the witness box on Thursday.
The first was the one who told Crown prosecutors in the morning that he thought he was doing a good deed when he paid Senator Mike Duffy's $90,172.24 expense tab, and who cited Matthew 6:3 to explain why he didn't want people to know about his charity.
The second was the Nigel Wright who reluctantly conceded, under cross-examination later by Mr. Duffy's lawyer, that he wanted the damaging story to go away and to protect Stephen Harper.
There's an argument in Mr. Duffy's trial over the motivations of Mr. Wright, the former chief of staff to the Prime Minister, and the man who negotiated a deal for Mr. Duffy to tell the public that he would repay his questionable expenses, when in the end, Mr. Wright paid. Mr. Duffy's lawyer Donald Bayne is trying to show the Prime Minister's Office cared about damage control, not principles, and forced a scheme on a senator who believed he hadn't broken the rules. Obviously, Mr. Wright's motivations will be judged by the public, too.
The first Nigel Wright took the stand Thursday morning, for the second day of his testimony, as the prosecution wrapped up its questions. He had already testified Wednesday that he had first arranged for the Conservative Party Fund to pay Mr. Duffy's expense bill, but he stepped in when Senator Irving Gerstein, in charge of the fund, balked at the cost.
But why didn't he tell anyone he had paid? Mr. Wright testified Thursday he felt he'd done a "good deed" in ensuring taxpayers were not on the hook, and cited the Book of Matthew, which admonishes people not to give alms so that it will be seen, and quoted its instruction not to let your left hand know what your right hand does.
But under cross-examination by Mr. Duffy's lawyer, Mr. Wright's sure explanations turned at times to wriggling reluctance.
Why was it, Mr. Bayne asked, that when it was the Conservative fund that was going to foot the bill, he also wanted assurances that would be kept secret? Mr. Wright didn't really explain, other than saying Mr. Gerstein wanted it that way.
Wasn't it a "deceptive scenario" to make people think Mr. Duffy had paid, Mr. Bayne asked? Isn't that why, even after Mr. Wright stepped in to pay, he didn't want people to know? Mr. Wright said "he just didn't think of it that way at the time," and that he had contemplated the possibility that the source of funds might one day come out. Then Mr. Bayne read Mr. Wright's own statement to the RCMP, in which he said that "the government was going to be happy if people thought Duffy had repaid."
The fencing between Mr. Bayne and Mr. Wright went beyond that. At times, Mr. Harper's former chief of staff took issue with Mr. Bayne's assertions that Mr. Harper's government was acting out of concern for political embarrassment. Mr. Bayne said the PMO saw expense claims as a "hot-button issue," but Mr. Wright balked and said he would call it "heightened sensitivity."
As the day went on, Mr. Wright increasingly conceded political damage was a concern. But Mr. Bayne suggested the PMO only cared about political embarrassment, not whether Mr. Duffy's expense claims were morally wrong, and Mr. Wright replied that the claims were morally wrong and that made them politically embarrassing.
Perhaps the judge will split it down the middle. It's possible to think Mr. Duffy's expense claims were wrong and still be motivated by a desire to control political damage. Certainly the evidence thus far leaves no doubt that Mr. Wright and other senior Conservatives were worried the Mike Duffy scandal was hurting Mr. Harper, and they stage-managed Mr. Duffy's statement of repentance to try to make that stop. If Mr. Wright felt he was being selfless saving the taxpayers from paying, he was also taking one for the team.
After all, Mr. Bayne noted, part of the deal was for Mr. Duffy to publicly say he repaid the money, so why mislead Canadians? Mr. Wright's reply was that "Senator Duffy repaid with my funds." Somehow, that answer didn't seem to have the same loft as the Book of Matthew. Being forthright was sacrificed to damage control. Now the question, as Mr. Wright continues to testify, is how voters will judge his motives and how it reflects on the Prime Minister he served.