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Politics Butts on SNC-Lavalin: ‘Nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government’

Watch the full opening statement from Gerald Butts, former top aide to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, at Wednesday's hearing of the House justice committee.

Gerald Butts, the former top man in the Prime Minister’s Office, gave a very different account of the SNC-Lavalin affair on Wednesday than what Jody Wilson-Raybould said last week, denying that she raised concerns about her interactions with the PMO until after she was shuffled out of the attorney-general’s job in January – a shuffle he insisted had “absolutely nothing to do with SNC-Lavalin.” Stressing repeatedly that the PMO believed 9,000 jobs to be at stake, he said of the discussions with Ms. Wilson-Raybould: “I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government.”

A week after Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s bombshell testimony, Mr. Butts answered questions from the House justice committee after delivering an opening statement. Check below for a minute-by-minute recap of what he said, and here for the highlights and larger context of his testimony. Later this afternoon, Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin, who have appeared before the committee before, returned to answer new questions.


What Gerald Butts said

(updates in reverse chronological order; all times ET)

12:39 p.m.: The Liberal majority votes down a motion to recall Ms. Wilson-Raybould and answer Mr. Butts’s testimony. The committee adjourns, to resume at 2 p.m.

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12:28 p.m.: Mr. Butts is excused.

12:28 p.m.: Asked if he thinks it was a mistake in hindsight to move Ms. Wilson-Raybou “I think that the government was put in a very difficult position ... the Prime Minister made, I think, a well-informed decision about the cabinet shuffle and had everybody on the team done what the Prime Minister asked of them, then I think we would not be having this conversation today.”

12:20 p.m.: Ms May asks: “Is there any evidence that jobs were at stake by letting this go through the courts?” He answers: “That’s my understanding from Department of Finance briefings, but I have to say that it’s been a long time. I can’t recall anything specific."

12:16 p.m.: Green Party Leader Elizabeth May points out that Mr. Butts’s testimony doesn’t mention Michael Wernick, the Privy Council Clerk, and asks her if he knew she would call her on Dec. 19 and press her on the SNC issue. He says no.

I will say about the clerk of the Privy Council, who I've gotten to know pretty well over the past three-and-a-half years, that I find the accusations against him completely inconsistent with his character. ... I just can't imagine a circumstance where Michael Wernick would do the things he is alleged to have done.

12:11 p.m.: Asked if he has any regrets about how the SNC issue was handled, he says: “I like to look forward in life ... In this case, I’ve looked at it really closely over the last couple of weeks, and I firmly believe that nothing inappropriate happened here.”

12:08 p.m.: Questioned by NDP MP Charlie Angus about how he could not have known that Ms. Wilson-Raybould made up her mind about SNC in September, Mr. Butts said: “I have a very different versions of events ... I believe that everything I have said to this committee is the truth.”

11:40-45 a.m.: Ms. Raitt moves a motion to have Mr. Butts table correspondence, such as e-mails and texts, between him and other senior officials about SNC, including texts from his personal phone. The Liberal majority on the committee defeats the motion.

11:30 a.m.: Asked about Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s account that Ms. Telford suggested newspaper opinion pieces be arranged in support of a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC, Mr. Butts said:

It's not a sophisticated tool in politics to ask your supporters to support you. It's a common practice ... that whatever position a party or the opposition party is taking, they seek out supporters in the free press.

Here’s a fuller explanation from The Globe and Mail’s Simon Houpt about the practice of soliciting opinion pieces and the politics behind it.

11:20 a.m.: In Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s version of events, deputy justice minister Nathalie Drouin said the SNC file had been made a priority for the new justice minister, David Lametti. Asked why she would say that, Mr. Butts said: “I have no idea. You’d have to ask the deputy minister of justice that.”

11:12 a.m.: Asked about how the PMO might appropriately talk about provincial politics as a factor in important decisions, Mr. Butts brings up the behind-the-scenes discussions about the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement, the trade deal replacing the North American free-trade agreement. That deal opened the door to the protected Canadian dairy market, a contentious move for Quebec, the largest dairy-producing province. “That did not stop us from signing NAFTA,” Mr. Butts says.

11:11 a.m.: “Was there a co-ordinated effort within the PMO to get the former A-G to change her mind?” Mr. Boissonnault asks. “No,” Mr. Butts replies.

11:04 a.m.: NDP Murray Rankin suggests that Ms. Wilson-Raybould might need to be called back because the order-in-council allowing her to speak didn’t cover her time after being justice minister, whereas Mr. Butts spoke about discussions surrounding to the cabinet shuffle.

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10:58 a.m.: Asked if he is worried about the status of the rule of law in Canada, Mr. Butts says no. “In a lot of places, public institutions are faltering or failing, and they’re faltering or failing in countries that look just like ours.”

10:53 a.m.: Asked by Liberal MP Randy Boissonnault why he resigned if he believes he did nothing wrong, he says: “I think I was put in the position where I had to ask my colleagues to fight another colleague ... and that put the Prime Minister in an impossible position.”

10:51 a.m.: Asked by Conservative MP Lisa Raitt why the discussions about SNC-Lavalin would involve political considerations, he said: “I think there’s a grey area in what you think is a political consideration.”

10:48 a.m.: Asked if anyone helped him to prepare his testimony, he says he had legal counsel and advice from “some friends who have nothing to do with the present government,” but not Mr. Trudeau. He said that he had one phone call with Mr. Trudeau since his resignation in which he wished him well, but nothing else. “This is the longest I’ve gone in about 30 years without talking to the prime minister.”

10:41-43: Mr. Butts says Ms. Wilson-Raybould is unfairly maligning the people she named in her testimony. Here’s a primer of the 11 people she spoke about, including Mr. Butts and Mr. Trudeau. He concludes his opening statement and says he will welcome questions.

10:39 a.m.: “I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government,” Mr. Butts says in nearing the conclusion of his opening statement. He also stresses that Mr. Trudeau would have acted if he knew that anything improper was going on:

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I want you to know this. I know it from long personal experience with the Prime Minister: if something improper had been happening, and that impropriety had been made known to him, the Prime Minister would have put a stop to it, even if the impropriety were his own.

10:37 a.m.: Mr. Butts said Ms. Wilson-Raybould refused a reassignment to Indigenous Services because she didn’t want to be responsible for enforcing programs under the Indian Act, the federal legislation governing relationships with Indigenous people.

10:27 a.m.: Mr. Butts alleges that Ms. Wilson-Raybould never spoke up about her concerns about SNC-Lavalin until after the cabinet shuffle in January, in which she was reassigned to Veterans Affairs. He also denied that she was shuffled because of the SNC-Lavalin issue:

The January Cabinet shuffle had absolutely nothing to do with the SNC-Lavalin. In fact, I spent at least as much time working with colleagues to prevent the shuffle from happening as I did in preparing my advice for it.

10:25 a.m.: Mr. Butts give his version of a December meeting between him, PMO chief of staff Katie Telford and Jessica Prince, Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s then chief of staff. He says Ms. Prince said Ms. Wilson-Raybould didn’t want to consider “political factors” in the SNC decision, to which he replied:

I said that it is the Minister’s decision of course, but 9,000 people are not a political issue. It was a very real public policy issue, in my view.

10:15 a.m.: Mr. Butts says discussions between the PMO and Ms. Wilson-Raybould were never about second-guessing her, only about asking her to consider a second opinion:

When you boil it all down, all we ever asked the Attorney-General to consider was a second opinion. I am not a lawyer, and cannot give legal advice. But I have extensive experience in government. When 9,000 people’s jobs are at stake, it is a public policy problem of the highest order.

SNC-Lavalin has about 8,500 jobs in Canada, and 2,500 in Quebec. Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s allegations highlighted pressure from the PMO about the political costs to the Liberals in Quebec if jobs were lost there or SNC moved its headquarters elsewhere.

10:11: Mr. Butts describes the quarrel between Ms. Wilson-Raybould and Mr. Trudeau as a communication breakdown, but one without malice.

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A breakdown in the relationship between the former Attorney-General and the Prime Minister occurred. That breakdown coloured the unrelated events of the fall of 2018 in a negative light for many of the people involved. As the main point of contact in the PMO for the former Minister of Justice, I take responsibility for that breakdown.

10:05-08 a.m.: MPs debate and vote down a motion to put Mr. Butts under oath, which has not happened at the committee in 25 years. “I can assure all members of the committee that I will tell the truth,” Mr. Butts says.

10:02 a.m.: Mr. Butts arrives at the hearing and prepares to speak.

10:01 a.m.: Mr. Butts’s opening statement is released.

9:57 a.m.: Liberal MPs begin to arrive at the committee hearing room where Mr. Butts is due to begin his testimony at 10 a.m.

A PMO primer: Who is Gerald Butts?

July 18, 2018: Gerald Butts and Trudeau chief of staff Katie Telford speak before a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

After becoming best friends at McGill University in the 1990s, Mr. Butts and Mr. Trudeau embarked on a unique political partnership. When Mr. Trudeau ran for the Liberal leadership, it was Mr. Butts who crafted the narrative that would propel him to victory; in the 2015 election, it was Mr. Butts who helped mastermind the Liberals’ winning campaign; and when Mr. Trudeau was prime minister, Mr. Butts was his principal secretary, shaping important policy decisions and acting as a go-between to the Trump administration during trade talks.

Then came the SNC-Lavalin affair. In February, The Globe and Mail was first to report allegations that, in late 2018, the Prime Minister’s Office had pressed justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to settle a case against the Quebec engineering firm out of court, even though prosecutors wanted to take it to trial. Ms. Wilson-Raybould, now shuffled into Veterans Affairs, quit cabinet days after The Globe’s initial report; a week after that, Mr. Butts quit the PMO, saying in a statement that the allegations were distracting from the Liberal government’s work. Then, on Feb. 27, Ms. Wilson-Raybould gave a searing account to the House justice committee about what happened, saying Mr. Butts, Mr. Trudeau and others in the PMO and Privy Council Office put “inappropriate” pressure on her to settle with SNC. The next day, Mr. Butts wrote to the committee asking if he could testify next. That set the stage for Wednesday’s hearing.

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SNC-Lavalin: More reading

Explainers

Full coverage: A guide to SNC-Lavalin, Jody Wilson-Raybould and Trudeau’s PMO

What are the PMO and PCO, and what do they do? A guide

All Pearson, no Pierre: A guide to Trudeau's inner circle

What are deferred prosecution agreements?

Profiles of the key players

Gerald Butts: The BFF in the PMO

Names named: The 11 people Wilson-Raybould said were involved

Jody Wilson-Raybould: Why she was destined to speak truth to power

Katie Telford: Who is the most powerful woman in Ottawa?

Commentary

John Ibbitson: Testimony by Butts will likely just prolong the Liberals’ SNC-Lavalin agony

Campbell Clark: Butts can fight back now that he is out of the PMO

Lori Turnbull: Butts is trying to be a martyr. Voters are smarter than that

Adam Radwanski: Nobody saw the Trudeau-Butts story ending this way. But is it really over?

Compiled by Globe staff

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