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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is seen on screens as he attends a House of Commons finance committee meeting, in Ottawa, on July 30, 2020.

BLAIR GABLE/Reuters

Prime Ministers don’t go before parliamentary committees to be grilled by the opposition on their latest scandal. So when Justin Trudeau did so on Thursday afternoon, it was because he had a job to do.

He had to give the country a plausible tale, with some details, that asserted that he wasn’t the person who cooked up the idea of handing a $500-million government program over to WE Charity.

And in roughly 90 minutes of highly unusual testimony, he more or less got the job done. Opposition MPs had howled for him to testify, but it was Mr. Trudeau who achieved his political goals.

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The Prime Minister didn’t wave the ethics concerns away. It’s too late for that, because he should never been involved in decisions on the whole business, given WE’s ties to his family. He didn’t dispel questions about his judgment; he raised a few more. But he got his message across, and that’s that he wasn’t involved in steering a contract to friends.

Trudeau, Telford speak on WE Charity controversy: What you missed from Thursday’s hearings

Read Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s opening remarks as he testifies on WE Charity

Trudeau says he pushed back on WE Charity contract when it was first proposed

The Prime Minister said that when he announced the rushed plan to give grants to student volunteers back on April 22, he thought the fledgling Canada Service Corps would handle it. He said he didn’t even know until May 8 that officials had decided that wasn’t feasible, and were proposing that WE Charity would deliver the program – and that was after officials from Employment and Social Development Canada and WE hammered out details. He said neither he nor his staff in the Prime Minister’s Office were involved in working out that deal.

That won’t stop the questions cold, of course. Mr. Trudeau took part in the decision to launch the grant program with WE in charge, even though his mother and brother had worked for the organization as well-paid speakers, and his wife was a volunteer ambassador.

But for the first time, Mr. Trudeau offered a chronology of his own involvement.

In the crisis atmosphere of a pandemic, Mr. Trudeau testified, both he and his chief of staff, Katie Telford, only found out that officials were proposing the program be delivered by WE Charity just before cabinet was slated to approve it at a meeting May 8.

That sparked questions, Mr. Trudeau said – in part because he knew there would be extra scrutiny due to his family’s connections to WE – so he delayed the cabinet decision by two weeks and asked officials to make sure they had “dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s.”

Right there, you have to wonder what he was thinking. He knew it didn’t look good, you’d think he’d resolve to recuse himself, and treat the whole business with a 10-foot-pole. There still isn’t much public indication of all the i-dotting and t-crossing, though Mr. Trudeau said public servants told the government it was a choice between a WE-run program or no program at all. Too bad he didn’t kibosh it, and put the money into other emergency student programs.

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So why was this testimony a political success for the PM? Because it gave him an opportunity to make his most important case about the WE controversy: That he erred, but didn’t sin.

At one point, Mr. Trudeau insisted that he was never in a conflict of interest, because his relatives didn’t stand to gain if WE was chosen to run the grant program. But of course, that’s a technical defence. The purpose of conflict-of-interest rules is to assure the public that politicians aren’t in a position to make corrupt choices. And Mr. Trudeau knows well enough that his family’s ties to WE had some people wondering whether he steered a big government program to the charity out of favouritism. In all the ways that matter, the PM was in a conflict. Judging by the polls, Canadians see it that way.

But Mr. Trudeau has essentially already apologized for that – for failing to recuse himself from decisions. He has admitted a mistake.

His testimony Thursday made the case he didn’t do anything actually corrupt – cooking up the whole program to steer millions of dollars to a favoured organization that employs his mom. In fact, he asserted that he couldn’t have done that, because he didn’t even know about WE’s involvement till the details were all but settled. And unless that claim is pierced, it will help Mr. Trudeau stanch the bleeding from the WE affair.

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