For the first time in a long time, Gerald Butts’s Twitter feed went silent.
Save for a single tweet to thank those who had reached out after his resignation as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s powerful principal secretary, Mr. Butts did not have anything else to post on Monday.
Gone were the habitual attacks on critics of the Liberal government, including rival provincial premiers. There was none of the usual virtue signalling or heaping of praise on his own government and boss.
With Mr. Butts’s sudden departure, the Prime Minister loses his most ferocious defender and closest confidant. Indeed, no Prime Minister in recent memory has been as seemingly dependent on a single aide as Mr. Trudeau has been on his old McGill University pal. Their relationship has been so symbiotic that the prospect of Mr. Trudeau without Mr. Butts is difficult to contemplate.
Even so, Mr. Butts had to go. He violated every rule governing the comportment of political advisers, who should stay quiet in public and never upstage their boss. But as the brewing scandal over allegations of interference by the Prime Minister’s Office in a fraud case involving SNC-Lavalin came to dominate the news, Mr. Butts attracted the very worst kind of attention.
The allegations that senior PMO staff sought to put pressure on former justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould to defer prosecution of SNC-Lavalin have not only sparked an investigation by the Ethics Commissioner, they have thrown the entire government off course − in an election year.
Instead of protecting Mr. Trudeau, Mr. Butts has put him in grave danger. The prospect of more damaging details emerging about the PMO’s handling of the SNC-Lavalin file, which ran directly through Mr. Butts, made his position untenable. As did the PMO’s dreadful attempts at damage control, as it repeatedly changed its messaging in days after The Globe and Mail broke the story.
Mr. Trudeau had little choice but to cut his friend loose. And many members of the Liberal caucus will cheer his departure. Mr. Butts was seen by many as too controlling. His continual presence at Mr. Trudeau’s side, even at caucus meetings, became a source of tension. Instead of enjoying free access to their own Leader, some Liberals felt ignored or condescended to by the PMO.
“The next Liberal shuffle needs to be the unelected @gmbutts,” Conservative MP Erin O’Toole tweeted on Thursday, using Mr. Butts’s Twitter handle. “Longtime Liberals tell me this needs to happen because of the divisive environment he creates. Time for Trudeau to show his Svengali the door.”
Still, even his critics concede that Mr. Butts’s skill, intelligence and toughness will be difficult for Mr. Trudeau to replace. While chief of staff Katie Telford enjoys the Prime Minister’s trust, her relationship with Mr. Trudeau is not comparable with the bond he shares with Mr. Butts.
Thus, although his departure had become necessary, it also carries big risks for Mr. Trudeau and his government. Unless Mr. Butts continues to offer advice from the sidelines, the Liberal government now heads into the critical months before an election without its chief strategist.
For Mr. Trudeau, this is an inflection point. Mr. Butts had come to overshadow his boss, leading to unflattering suggestions on social media that the Prime Minister reported to his principal secretary, rather than the other way around. Now, Mr. Trudeau has to ensure that Mr. Butts’s departure does not throw the PMO into disarray or, worse, lead to infighting among his senior staff.
Every recent prime minister, save for perhaps the lone wolf that was Stephen Harper, has relied on an airtight relationship with a single senior adviser. Mr. Trudeau’s father, Pierre Trudeau, came to count on Jim Coutts to a degree few expected from such an independent thinker as Canada’s 15th prime minister. Brian Mulroney, the consummate extrovert, depended on his introverted principal secretary Bernard Roy. Jean Chrétien had Eddie Goldenberg and Paul Martin had David Herle.
Still, none of those duos matched the Trudeau-Butts partnership. It would be hard to overstate the extent to which Mr. Butts made Justin Trudeau. Had the two twentysomethings not struck up an enduring friendship at McGill, it is not clear that Mr. Trudeau would be where he is now.
For better and for worse. Because as much as Mr. Trudeau is indebted to Mr. Butts for helping him become Prime Minister, his former principal secretary has left the Liberal government under a cloud from which it may not emerge intact. That has to be bittersweet for both of them.