Gerry Butts didn’t resign to take the fall. He resigned to fight back.
Next week, we’ll see the Prime Minister’s close friend and former principal secretary step out from back rooms and onto a very public political stage to counter Jody Wilson-Raybould’s allegations of political interference in the SNC-Lavalin affair.
Precisely what he’ll say remains unknown. But there have been some hints about how Mr. Trudeau and the Liberals intend to contest Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s allegations: not by calling her a liar about the basic facts of all those meetings, but by insisting her truth isn’t the whole truth – and that many people remember the same tale differently.
For nearly two weeks, Mr. Butts’s resignation has been the subject of puzzled speculation in Ottawa. He was Mr. Trudeau’s indispensable adviser. When he quit on Feb. 18, he hadn’t been identified by anyone as the main player in placing pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to halt the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin in favour of a negotiated settlement. Mr. Butts didn’t take the blame when he resigned; he said no one in the PMO had done anything wrong. So why quit?
The answer must be that he knew he would be one of Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s chief “targets” and wanted a free hand to respond – not as someone still working in the PMO or newly forced out by Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s revelations.
Firing attacks at Ms. Wilson-Raybould would clearly backfire. Mr. Trudeau had made a milestone of her appointment as the first female Indigenous justice minister in 2015. Accusations that the PMO was “smearing” Ms. Wilson-Raybould dented Mr. Trudeau’s political brand. She had seized the high ground.
She also marshalled details: Her testimony featured a four-month chronology of 20 meetings and calls, backed by notes and texts. How could Team Trudeau deny it happened?
But there are already hints of what they will do: claim it didn’t happen that way.
On Wednesday, after Ms. Wilson-Raybould testified, Mr. Trudeau’s terse response hinted at that: He said he didn’t agree with her “characterization” of events. The next day, two cabinet ministers, Mélanie Joly and François-Philippe Champagne, put it another way: Ms. Wilson-Raybould had one version, they said, but 10 or 11 other people – those named in her testimony – had different interpretations.
Finance Minister Bill Morneau provided an example of that approach. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony had included Mr. Morneau as one of the many hounding her to change her mind; she said he had spoken with her on Sept. 19 and “stressed the need to save jobs.” But Mr. Morneau told reporters on Thursday she had raised the SNC-Lavalin file with him, not the other way round, telling him to stop his staff from contacting hers – and he replied that it was appropriate for his aides to speak to hers about economic concerns.
We can expect to hear other recasts of the tale. Expect some to note that Ms. Wilson-Raybould recounted 20 calls and meetings, but she did not participate in more than half of them – they were conversations with her staff relayed to her later.
Mr. Butts, presumably, asked to testify so he could tell the story another way. The head of the civil service, Clerk of the Privy Council Michael Wernick, will appear for a second time – after Ms. Wilson-Raybould testified she felt he had issued veiled threats.
Maybe Mr. Butts will argue the PMO was just trying to make Ms. Wilson-Raybould take the potential loss of thousands of SNC-Lavalin jobs more seriously and that the mountain of pressure she described was really a molehill. Still, putting pressure on an attorney-general to change her mind on a criminal prosecution is still a no-no. And it’s hard to imagine a version of events that makes it all disappear. Ms. Wilson-Raybould quoted a text from her then-chief of staff, Jessica Prince, who recounted that Mr. Butts had said there was no solution to the SNC-Lavalin affair “that doesn’t involve some interference.” That doesn’t sound good.
There’s another problem with presenting a bunch of versions that don’t match Ms. Wilson Raybould’s. It opens the door to more. If three people named by Ms. Wilson-Raybould testify, why not eight others? What about Ms. Prince, who related many of the conversations to Ms. Wilson-Raybould? What about the PM?
But it’s a way forward. The Trudeau team response is coming, but it won’t quickly put this all in the past.