When he swept into office back in 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised supporters of a Liberal Party reinvigorated by a decade of conservative rule that he would bring about “real change” – both in Ottawa, and for a Liberal Party marred by allegations of corruption.
So far, he has largely failed at both, cozying up to the country’s energy industry while masking his maintenance of the pro-business status quo with legalized marijuana and a “progressive” agenda that has included banning misgendering and hiring the first cabinet in Canada’s history with an equal number of men and women.
Yet as Canada’s leader braces for what promises to be a bruising reelection campaign ahead of a vote in October, his office has been marred by a blossoming scandal surrounding reports that it pressured the former attorney general into dropping years-old corruption charges against Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin, a Canadian construction company with close ties to Trudeau’s party.
In a sign that this scandal won’t easily disappear, no matter how many times Trudeau stands in front of a gaggle of reporters and breezily denies the allegations, one of his closest aids resigned on Monday over allegations that he or his staff pressured the former AG, who was abruptly demoted last month.
The aide, Principal Secretary Gerald Butts, denied the allegations, and said he was resigning to avoid distracting Trudeau from the hard work ahead. It’s unclear whether he will have any role on the Trudeau campaign. He is considered the second most influential official in Trudeau’s government after Chief of Staff Katie Telford.
Principal Secretary Gerald Butts issued a statement Monday, during a long weekend in much of Canada, announcing his resignation in order to prevent the issue from distracting “from the vital work the Prime Minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.”
A report this month by the Globe and Mail newspaper raised allegations the prime minister’s office pressured Trudeau’s former attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to settle fraud and corruption charges against construction company SNC-Lavalin Group Inc. The controversy escalated last week after Wilson-Raybould, who had been moved into a new ministry recently, quit cabinet.
In his statement, Butts said he “categorically” denied the allegation that he or any of his staff pressured her.
“My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend,” Butts said in the statement. “It is in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”
In his statement to the Globe and Mail, Butts said he and Trudeau’s office “honored the role” of the attorney general.
“I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in this office pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould,” Mr. Butts said in a statement on Monday. “We honoured the unique role of the Attorney General. At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians.”
A Globe and Mail story on Feb. 7 said Ms. Wilson-Raybould came under pressure from the Prime Minister’s Office to instruct prosecutors to offer SNC-Lavalin a deferred prosecution deal when she was justice minister and attorney-general.
Trudeau also tweeted the full statement:
He also said his decision to resign shouldn’t detract from Trudeau’s work. Trudeau has said that he spoke with the former AG, Jody Wilson-Raybould, in September about the SNC-Lavalin Group scandal, but claims he told her at the time that it was “her decision to make.”
But some of the government’s maneuvering that – incidentally or not – helped clear the way for the charges to be dropped would suggest that Trudeau may have been actively pushing for such a resolution. For example, Trudeau’s government successfully changed a law to allow for a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin. And many observers were surprised when Wilson-Raybould was demoted during a seemingly arbitrary reshuffle. She has since resigned and hired attorneys to advise her about what she can and cannot say about the affair.
Trudeau acknowledged last week that his government had discussed the issue of a resolution to the charges in an effort to avoid job losses at the company, which employs about 9,000 people in Canada.
But the timing of the firing is difficult to ignore. And as the scandal widens, many are beginning to wonder if Trudeau will even make it to October.