Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has reached out to Canada’s ambassador to the United States for political advice as he grapples with the SNC-Lavalin controversy, which has cost him two high-profile ministers and his trusted principal secretary, Gerald Butts.
David MacNaughton, an experienced political hand who chaired the Liberal election campaign in 2015, was brought into the Prime Minister’s Office on Tuesday, on the eve of highly anticipated testimony by Mr. Butts before the Commons justice committee on Wednesday morning.
Mr. Butts is expected to attempt to counter testimony from Jody Wilson-Raybould to the committee last week that she was under “consistent and sustained” political pressure from the Prime Minister and top officials when she was attorney-general to order the director of the Public Prosecution Service of Canada to negotiate an out-of-court settlement in the corruption and fraud prosecution of SNC-Lavalin Group Inc.
A senior official in the PMO, who was not allowed to speak publicly about the political controversy, said Mr. Trudeau is reflecting on whether to express contrition, and realizes he needs to acknowledge he could have handled the matter differently.
The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to shelve the prosecution of the Montreal engineering and construction giant. She refused to do so, and was demoted weeks later to veterans affairs. Ms. Wilson-Raybould has said she suspected the move was because of the SNC-Lavalin prosecution.
Mr. Trudeau first called The Globe’s story false, and later, as he tried to weather the growing political controversy, denied any inappropriate pressure was put on the former attorney-general.
Since then, Ms. Wilson-Raybould stepped down from cabinet, followed by Mr. Butts’s departure, and on Monday, the resignation of Treasury Board president Jane Philpott from cabinet.
After Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Mr. Trudeau said he disagrees with how she characterized discussions she had on the case with him and others, including Mr. Butts.
Mr. Trudeau, who usually does not avoid journalists, steered clear of reporters in Toronto on Tuesday morning and cancelled events in Saskatchewan later in the day, including a party fundraiser, to return to Ottawa for internal meetings.
The senior PMO official acknowledged that the sudden resignation of Ms. Philpott had shaken the Trudeau cabinet.
Ms. Philpott, widely regarded as one of the most competent of the Trudeau ministers, cited a lack of confidence in how the Prime Minster handled the SNC-Lavalin matter and deplored political interference in a criminal prosecution.
The official pointed out that Mr. Trudeau signaled on Monday night in response to Ms. Philpott’s resignation that he was now reflecting on how the political controversy could have been dealt with differently.
In his comments at a Toronto event, Mr. Trudeau said: “This matter has generated a lot of important discussions on how democratic institutions, specifically the federal ministry and the staff and officials that support it, conduct themselves. It is critical and core to all our principles … and concerns of this nature must be taken very seriously and I can assure you I am.”
The official said Mr. Trudeau will reflect on the different perspectives about the SNC-Lavalin issue and will provide a “more detailed and fulsome reaction” in the coming days. The Prime Minister does not expect any more resignations, the official said.
Deputy Conservative Leader Lisa Raitt said on Tuesday that it will be hard for the Liberals to counter Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s narrative.
“They can’t explain their way out of it … They just kept trying to get around the brick wall of Jody Wilson-Raybould, and in the end, they came up with only one way, which was getting rid of her.”
She said any demonstration of contrition from Mr. Trudeau will not erase what he did.
On Wednesday, the committee will also hear once again from Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick and Nathalie Drouin, the deputy minister of justice, in the afternoon. Mr. Wernick testified in late February that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was subjected to “lawful advocacy.”
Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland on Tuesday defended Mr. Trudeau’s conduct in light of the resignations of the two high-profile female cabinet ministers, calling the Liberal Leader a genuine feminist.
She said she was sad to see Ms. Philpott leave cabinet, calling her “a woman of principle.”
Asked if the resignations should be enough to spark a Liberal Party leadership review, Ms. Freeland replied: “I fully support the Prime Minister. It is a huge privilege for me to serve as the foreign minister and to serve in his cabinet.”
Asked if this scandal has hurt Canada’s reputation, Ms. Freeland said she has absolute confidence that Canada is a “country of justice” with an impartial and objective legal system.
She also pointed out the Prime Minister did not have to free Ms. Wilson-Raybould from cabinet confidence and solicitor-client privilege concerning the discussions that happened when she was attorney-general so that she could speak to the justice committee. She said she is glad he did.
“It was the Prime Minister’s decision to allow Ms. Wilson-Raybould to speak openly,” she said. “I am sure it was not an easy decision … but I am very happy he made this decision.”
Before she testified, Ms. Wilson-Raybould expressed disappointment that the cabinet order permitting her to speak did not apply to conversations that took place while she was veterans affairs minister or in relation to her resignation from cabinet.
Ms. Freeland said the resignations are part of a Liberal Party debate over how to deal with SNC-Lavalin. “Having a debate is not a weakness. It means that we have a truly strong democracy.”
Francis Scarpaleggia, chair of the Liberal national caucus, said he is not expecting other Liberal MPs to speak out.
“As caucus chair, I speak to people, but I also have a feel for the caucus. I can tell you that the caucus is very united,” he said. “I understand there was Jane’s resignation from cabinet, but in the larger scheme of things, nothing has changed as far as I’m concerned.”
The House of Commons is on a two-week recess and will not sit again until March 18, the day before the release of the federal budget.
When Ms. Wilson-Raybould announced her resignation on Feb. 12, it was also a break week. Mr. Trudeau held a conference call later that week with the Liberal caucus to outline the government’s point of view.
Another such phone call is not planned, the national caucus chair said.
Opposition parties have called for Mr. Wernick to step down as Canada’s top bureaucract, with the NDP saying his conduct in the SNC-Lavalin affair and his previous testimony to the Commons justice committee demonstrate he is “deeply compromised” as Privy Council Clerk.
“It is becoming clear that Mr. Wernick played a key part in the actions that have precipitated this crisis,” NDP MP Charlie Angus wrote to Mr. Trudeau this week.
Mr. Angus also raised concerns about the clerk’s role on a Canadian election monitoring team inside the federal government that must decide when to alert Canadians about alleged threats to the integrity of the 2019 federal election.
He said the clerk’s personal remarks to the justice committee – that he feared an attempt might be made to assassinate a Canadian politician in the upcoming months – and his praise for cabinet minister Carolyn Bennett suggest “a worrying politicization of his position.”
Mr. Angus noted that Ms. Wilson-Raybould said the clerk had raised last fall’s provincial election in Quebec as “a reason for urgent intervention” to abandon the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.
“It is wholly inappropriate for the clerk to bring up these partisan considerations, particularly in the sensitive context of discussing with the attorney-general … overriding a decision by the independent public prosecutor,” Mr. Angus wrote to Mr. Trudeau this week.
With reports from Bill Curry and Ingrid Peritz