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Politics Canadians must now judge who is more credible: Gerald Butts or Jody Wilson-Raybould

Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's former top adviser, prepares to testify before a House of Commons justice committee in Wellington Building in Ottawa March 6, 2019.

Blair Gable/The Globe and Mail

Gerald Butts told the justice committee he wouldn’t “say a single negative word” about former justice minister and attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould. But his testimony did.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s former principal secretary’s testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair was so different from Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version that he was clearly striking at her credibility.

Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony was that she was under pressure to intervene in the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, and believed she was demoted because she didn’t. Mr. Butts’s said there was a “breakdown in trust” when Ms. Wilson-Raybould was demoted in January and that led her to wrongly reinterpret past events as improper pressure over the case.

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Yet Mr. Butts said the Prime Minister’s Office never asked her to intervene to halt the bribery prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a negotiated agreement. All that the Prime Minister’s aides wanted was for her to seek an outside legal opinion about whether that was an appropriate thing to do – because the livelihoods of 9,000 employees were at stake, and they wanted to be able to say they had explored every option.

But does his testimony change things? Consider some key questions:

Did Mr. Butts’s version of events fit with Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s? No.

Now Canadians must judge who is more credible. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has been lionized for speaking truth to power, and it seemed many Canadians believed her. That’s why opposition MPs on the justice committee kept asking Mr. Butts whether he was claiming Ms. Wilson-Raybould was lying – and why he refused to answer.

Mr. Butts chalked it up to different perspectives, but it was more. Will Canadians consider him credible?

Gerald Butts on the SNC-Lavalin affair: What you missed from Wednesday’s hearings, and what it means

Did he provide a plausible explanation that didn’t include interfering in a criminal prosecution? Yes – but an incomplete one.

Mr. Butts’s key point is that the PMO asked Ms. Wilson-Raybould only to get an outside legal opinion.

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But in his version, unlike Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s, no one was hounding the attorney-general to undo a decision.

He insisted Ms. Wilson-Raybould never indicated she had made a final decision – and that by law, she can’t have made a final decision, because she must keep an open mind to new considerations until the day a judge delivers a verdict.

That’s important, because Ms. Wilson-Raybould testified that she made up her mind in September yet the PM’s operatives kept hounding her for months. Mr. Butts insisted she didn’t say she’d made up her mind, and kept asking for feedback. He said Ms. Wilson-Raybould asked to meet him in what became a two-hour dinner at the Château Laurier in December, and she was the one who raised the topic.

Mr. Butts didn’t go into the details of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s meetings with other PMO staffers – saying he wasn’t there – but he did say she never told him that PMO staffers were acting inappropriately.

Read former Trudeau aide Gerald Butts’s full opening statement from his testimony on the SNC-Lavalin affair

Still, Mr. Butts’s own testimony suggests that, subjectively, Ms. Wilson-Raybould felt pressure. He testified that when Mr. Trudeau informed former cabinet minister Jane Philpott that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would replace her in the Indigenous Services portfolio, that Ms. Philpott expressed concern that Ms. Wilson-Raybould would feel she was being demoted because of the SNC-Lavalin case. That suggests that Ms. Wilson-Raybould told Ms. Philpott she felt pressure to intervene.

Did Mr. Butts provide a plausible account of why Jody Wilson-Raybould was shuffled out of the attorney-general’s job? Not really.

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Mr. Butts insisted, as the PM has, that there would’ve been no cabinet shuffle in January if former Treasury Board president Scott Brison hadn’t resigned. But the explanation for why that required a move for Ms. Wilson-Raybould doesn’t seem quite right.

It made sense, as Mr. Butts said, to move Ms. Philpott to replace Mr. Brison. But then, according to Mr. Butts, the Prime Minister planned to move Ms. Wilson-Raybould to replace Ms. Philpott in the Indigenous Services portfolio as a signal that he was still serious about Indigenous reconciliation – and only demoted her to Veterans Affairs when she refused.

The strange thing is that everyone in Ottawa seemed to know that Ms. Wilson-Raybould never wanted the Indigenous portfolio – that she was against the Indian Act, and would not be the one to administer it – everyone, it seems, except Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts.

“I should have realized that,” Mr. Butts said in his testimony. He added it was a busy time. But then, when Mr. Trudeau offered her a job that she had told many people she couldn’t do, it’s not surprising that she assumed there was another agenda at play.

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