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Jeremy Broadhurst and Katie Telford are seen as the Public Inquiry Into Foreign Interference in Federal Electoral Processes and Democratic Institutions goes on break, on April 9, in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When a series of reports on intelligence about foreign interference started to appear in news media last year, Canadians tried to put them into context.

Inside the Prime Minister’s Office, according one of Justin Trudeau’s senior advisers, Jeremy Broadhurst, “that was happening for us in the same way it was happening for the general public.”

Well, not exactly the same way. Mr. Trudeau and his senior advisers were given briefings the public never heard. There’s always been a question about what they were told.

If you sift through the testimony provided by the Prime Minister’s circle at the Foreign Interference Commission on Tuesday, you would find they suggested the series of news stories in The Globe and Mail and Global News were a puzzle that had them asking questions about what happened, what they didn’t know and what the big picture was. “We were learning things in these leaks,” Mr. Broadhurst said.

Four of Mr. Trudeau’s senior staffers, led by Katie Telford, the Chief of Staff, provided testimony that often told the inquiry the intelligence wasn’t as clear as people seem to think.

This was clearly what the people in Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle have been itching to say.

This week, the big story from the inquiry was the tabling of a CSIS document prepared for a briefing with the Prime Minister last year – after the extensive news reports – that included a stark warning that foreign interference will continue until the government acts forcefully to stop it.

But Brian Clow, the Prime Minister’s deputy chief of staff, said most of the talking points in that document, including the stark warning, were not actually conveyed to Mr. Trudeau in the meeting.

Mr. Broadhurst chimed in: “Whoever these were prepared for chose not to read them, or follow them, and we’ve never heard language like the stuff that is in this document.”

That apparent gulf between what CSIS thinks and what it tells the Prime Minister – or at least what the PMO says Mr. Trudeau heard – is, to say the least, worrisome. The gap between message sent and message received has been a key subject of the whole foreign-interference controversy from the beginning. Why didn’t Mr. Trudeau get the message?

A big theme of the PMO staffers’ appearance is that the intelligence conveyed to them about foreign interference wasn’t as stark as people seem to think.

The inquiry has already heard evidence that CSIS reported allegations of irregularities in the 2019 Liberal nomination of Toronto MP Han Dong, including that Chinese officials made veiled threats to Chinese foreign students who were bused to the nomination meeting to vote for Mr. Dong. Mr. Dong, now an independent MP, has denied any involvement.

The Prime Minister was briefed about the matter in the midst of the 2019 election campaign but did nothing, and Mr. Dong was elected as a Liberal MP.

Mr. Broadhurst testified that what he was given was not information that Mr. Dong’s nomination was aided by Chinese officials, but that there was “perhaps a plan” to do that, and it was not known if it actually happened. He said he recommended to Mr. Trudeau that he take no action against Mr. Dong because it didn’t meet the “extremely high bar for overturning a democratic result.”

Three years later, before Global News reported that Mr. Dong had allegedly urged Chinese diplomats not to release two Canadians detained by Beijing, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, reporters started asking the PMO about it. Mr. Clow testified that PMO staffers had not heard anything about the allegation until reporters started asking.

A month later, after the Global News report, Mr. Clow said he had determined the allegation was false, and PMO staffers held a meeting with officials to explore options for making that known publicly, including declassifying intelligence. “At this time, the conclusion was no, this cannot be made public,” Mr. Clow testified.

Even from this testimony, there remains a boatload of questions. Did anything change in the intelligence about Mr. Dong between the day Mr. Trudeau decided the allegations didn’t meet a high bar in 2019 and the day Mr. Dong left the Liberal caucus last year March? Why did CSIS not speak its warning to the PM?

Still, the main thing Mr. Trudeau’s advisers wanted to say in public, when speaking for the first time about the cases, was that the warning didn’t come in black and white.

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