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The major scandal engulfing Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, explained

Trudeau has been accused of pressuring his attorney general to interfere in a case for political reasons.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Visits China
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on December 4, 2017.
Lintao Zhang/Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is embroiled in a major political scandal that’s already tarnished his progressive image and could derail his premiership ahead of the October elections.

Trudeau and his political allies have been accused of pressuring Canada’s now-former minister of justice and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to drop criminal corruption charges against the Quebec-based engineering company SNC-Lavalin. Instead, they wanted her to merely issue financial penalties, which would allow the company to avoid a 10-year ban on bidding on federal contracts. SNC-Lavalin is suspected of bribing the Libyan government during the regime of Muammar Qaddafi.

News of the scandal went mainstream on February 7, 2019, when the Canadian outlet the Globe and Mail published a report of Trudeau’s office trying to pressure Wilson-Raybould to meddle in the SNC-Lavalin case. But the controversy exploded last week when Wilson-Raybould testified before the judiciary committee in Canada’s House of Commons.

During her testimony, Wilson-Raybould said that Trudeau and his senior aides had embarked on a “consistent and sustained” effort to get her to interfere in the case against SNC-Lavalin. She described the pressure as inappropriate but said that in her opinion, it “was not illegal.”

Trudeau, for his part, has denied any wrongdoing. On Thursday, in a major press conference about the SNC-Lavalin affair, he blamed the problem on an “erosion of trust” between his office and Wilson-Raybould. Trudeau also defended himself by saying he was trying to protect the interests of Canadians and jobs, and said that he had believed that, at the time, Wilson-Raybould was still seeking advice on the SNC-Lavalin case — though the decision was ultimately hers to make.

But the optics are still pretty terrible for the prime minister.

Wilson-Raybould — a former prosecutor and indigenous woman who was once a symbol of Trudaeu’s diverse and gender-balanced cabinet — was moved out of her role as attorney general and justice minister in January, and effectively demoted to a different position in the cabinet as minister of veterans affairs. She resigned from the cabinet altogether on February 12, 2019, soon after the scandal broke.

Trudeau, who became prime minister in 2015, has made transparency and openness a centerpiece of his leadership philosophy, and he enthusiastically embraced democratic values. He modeled his governing platform on promoting gender equality and indigenous rights. But his alleged pressure campaign and the eventual sidelining of Wilson-Raybould very much looks like a betrayal of those values.

“This is the bloom off the rose of the prime minister,” Jonathan Rose, a political science professor at Queen’s University in Ontario, told me. “It’s challenging him on a couple of big fronts: gender equity, his progressive policies. He’s fallen back to earth.”

The scandal has dramatically affected Trudeau’s public image and has rattled faith in his government, particularly after some high-profile resignations. This SNC-Lavalin debacle is unfolding in real time, but whether it will turn into a major election issue in October, or die out before then, is still unclear. Here’s what you need to know.

The SNC-Lavalin case predates Trudeau. But it turned into a scandal under his watch.

SNC-Lavalin is a major engineering and construction firm based in Montreal, Quebec, with operations all over the world.

In 2015, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) — Canada’s police force — alleged that SNC-Lavalin paid bribes to members of the Libyan government, including former dictator Muammar Qaddafi, to the tune of CA$48 million. Officials also alleged that SNC-Lavalin defrauded the Libyan government of nearly CA$130 million — money that was tied to construction projects in the country from 2001 to 2011.

SNC-Lavalin denied these charges, though it has a reputation for shady business practices abroad. But if found guilty in this Libyan case, the company would feel the consequences in Canada. Specifically, SNC-Lavalin would be barred from bidding on any Canadian government contracts for 10 years.

This is a big deal. SNC-Lavalin is involved in some major infrastructure projects in Canada and employs about 9,000 people in the country — a decade-long ban would be detrimental to its domestic business and could potentially result in serious job losses.

And, as mentioned, SNC-Lavalin is based in Quebec. The company is seen as the province’s “crown jewel,” according to the Canadian outlet CTV. Quebec is also a politically important state for Trudeau’s Liberal Party and for the prime minister himself (he represents a constituency there) ahead of a potentially tight federal election in October.

This is the backdrop for the scandal, which broke in February when the Globe and Mail reported that Trudeau’s office (often referred to as PMO, or the prime minister’s office) pressured Wilson-Raybould to intervene in the criminal case against the company. They allegedly pressured her to ask prosecutors to pursue a “deferred prosecution agreement,” which would result in financial penalties against the company rather than a formal prosecution — which would mean no 10-year ban.

These types of deferred-action prosecutions are becoming pretty common in the United States for big corporations, but they were introduced in Canada just last fall. Reports in the Canadian press have indicated that SNC-Lavalin lobbied for this change in the law, and very likely hoped to take advantage of it.

The report in the Globe and Mail relied on anonymous sources but implicated Trudeau and his close aides. The prime minister denied the allegation, and said that neither he nor anyone else in his office “was directed ... to take a decision on this matter.” To be clear, Trudeau didn’t deny talking about the SNC-Lavalin case with his cabinet ministers, but he said he’d never instructed anyone to interfere.

Without getting too deep into Canadian politics, it’s important to point out that in Canada, attorney general and justice minister is one position held by one person, who is also an elected member of Parliament.

So in her role as justice minister, Wilson-Raybould is a member of Trudeau’s cabinet, and it might not be out of the ordinary for the prime minister to discuss legal policy, or even a political or economic problem like the SNC-Lavalin case, among his ministers. But since Wilson-Raybould is also the attorney general, she also has the final say over the country’s prosecutorial arm, which is supposed to be independent of political influence. (This scandal has revived calls to separate the two roles because of the inherent conflict, and Trudeau brought up this conflict at his Thursday press conference.)

Trudeau has admitted he discussed the SNC-Lavalin prosecution with Wilson-Raybould, but said there was no pressure campaign executed by him or anyone close to him, and he’s said the decision on how to handle the company was “hers to make.” Also, nothing changed practically: SNC-Lavalin still faces criminal charges.

There’s a small wrinkle here, though. In early January, before the SNC-Lavalin story went public in February, Wilson-Raybould was moved in a cabinet reshuffle from the role of attorney general and justice minister — where she had served since 2015 — to the role of minister of veterans affairs, which was widely seen as a demotion. Law professor and Liberal MP David Lametti was named the new attorney general and justice minister.

Cabinet reshuffles happen. But Wilson-Raybould was a key member of Trudeau’s gender-balanced, diverse cabinet and a prominent indigenous leader in a government that promised better relations with Canada’s indigenous population. The fact that she was replaced by a white man already didn’t look great, but when reports that Trudeau and his office allegedly pressured Wilson-Raybould over SNC-Lavalin emerged, the personnel shift suddenly looked even worse.

Or at least that’s how the Conservative opposition, specifically leader Andrew Scheer, spun it. He argued that Trudeau demoted Wilson-Raybould because she didn’t give in to his demands on SNC-Lavalin, though there isn’t hard evidence of that.

The scandal spiraled from there. Canada’s independent ethics commissioner announced on February 11 that it would examine the allegations against Trudeau and his office, a probe the prime minister said he supported.

The following day, February 12, Wilson-Raybould abruptly resigned from Trudeau’s cabinet altogether. The House of Commons, Canada’s legislative body, also decided to investigate.

As the pressure intensified, Gerald Butts, a top adviser to Trudeau and a close friend and confidant of the prime minister’s, quit his job as principal secretary on February 18. Butts was implicated in the alleged pressure campaign, and though he denied any involvement in a lengthy resignation letter, he said his presence had become a distraction in government.

“Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the attorney general is simply not true,” Butts wrote. “But the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the prime minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.”

Wilson-Raybould’s testimony set off a firestorm

This SNC-Lavalin scandal went into overdrive when Wilson-Raybould testified before the judiciary committee in Canada’s House of Commons on February 27.

The hearing was explosive. Wilson-Raybould told members of Parliament that between September and December 2018, she was the subject of a “consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the attorney general of Canada.”

She called these attempts an “inappropriate effort” to secure a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin.

Wilson-Raybould said these instances involved 11 people from the prime minister’s office, the office of the privy council (the supposedly nonpartisan civil service), and the office of the finance minister. Altogether, Wilson-Raybould said, she or her staff participated in 10 meetings and 10 phone calls, along with emails and text messages, specifically about the SNC-Lavalin issue. She also took contemporaneous notes documenting these interactions.

“Within these conversations,” Wilson-Raybould testified, “there were expressed statements regarding the necessity of interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter, [and] the potential of consequences and veiled threats” if a deferred prosecution agreement wasn’t made available to the company.

Wilson-Raybould also recalled the specifics of these interactions — including those she had with Trudeau directly. For example, on September 17, she said, she attended a meeting with Trudeau and the clerk of the privy council, Michael Wernick.

At this meeting, which wasn’t supposed to be about SNC-Lavalin, she said, Trudeau immediately brought it up. He told her that unless there was an agreement, SNC-Lavalin would move from Montreal, leading to potential job losses. Wilson-Raybould says she protested and told him she wasn’t going to interfere, to which the prime minister repeated his concerns about job losses — and then brought up the upcoming Quebec provincial elections. Here’s the relevant part of her testimony:

... the prime minister jumped in, stressing that there is an election in Quebec and that, “I am an MP in Quebec, the member for Papineau.”

I was quite taken aback. My response, and I vividly remember this as well, was to ask the prime minister a direct question while looking him in the eye.

I asked: “Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the attorney general? I would strongly advise against it.”

The prime minister said: “No, no, no, we just need to find a solution.” The clerk then said that he spoke to my deputy and she said that I could speak to the director.

Over her hours-long testimony, Wilson-Raybould detailed these and other instances that all sounded pretty damning for Trudeau’s office — and the rest of the government. And with her contemporaneous memos and potential email and phone records, it appears she has evidence to back up her claims.

Yet Wilson-Raybould also made it clear that while she believed the pressure from the prime minister’s office to be “inappropriate,” it was not, in her opinion, illegal.

Wilson-Raybould concluded her testimony by saying she saw herself as speaking truth to power. “I come from a long line of matriarchs,” she said, referencing her First Nations background. “And I’m a truth-teller, in accordance with the laws and traditions of our big house. This is who I am, and this is who I always will be.”

This is bad for Justin Trudeau. But how bad? It’s too early to say.

At a press conference on the SNC-Lavalin affair on Thursday, the prime minister blamed the issue on a lack of trust between his office and Wilson-Raybould. He also doubled down on the point that the SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution could have resulted in big job losses in Canada, and it was his responsibility to weigh those matters of significant national interest.

“Each of these interactions was a conversation among colleagues about how to tackle a challenging issue,” Trudeau said. “Each came at a time when my staff and I believed that the former minister of justice and attorney general was open to considering other aspects of the public interest. However, I now understand that she saw it differently.”

Trudeau said he regretted that erosion of trust, but once again denied inappropriate pressure. “I can assure Canadians there was no breakdown in the rule of law, integrity of institutions,” he said.

But the prime minister also skirted the question on Wilson-Raybould’s removal from her job as attorney general and justice minister in January in the cabinet reshuffle, saying “there are many lessons to be learned and many things we would have liked to have done differently.”

The remarks by the prime minister came a day after Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former principal secretary who resigned in February, testified before the House of Commons in a high-profile hearing. He largely contradicted Wilson-Raybould’s version of events, saying Trudeau didn’t place inappropriate pressure on her and just wanted her to seek outside advice.

Butts said Trudeau wanted “to make sure the thousands of people whose jobs were and, it bears repeating, are at risk, were at the forefront of our minds at all times.”

“If anything could be done to protect those innocent people,” Butts continued, “we were told to work with the professional public service to make sure that option would be given every due consideration.”

He also said the prime minister never asked or directed Wilson-Raybould to seek a deferred prosecution agreement. “It was and is the attorney general’s decision to make,” Butts testified. He denied that the cabinet reshuffle, and Wilson-Raybould’s position change, had anything to do with SNC-Lavalin.

Taken together, Trudeau’s remarks and Butts testimony argue that their intentions were well-placed, since the government wanted to protect jobs — and this was mostly a failure to communicate.

But it seems unlikely the immense political pressure on Trudeau will ease up anytime soon. Conservative politicians are calling for his resignation and are demanding a criminal investigation by Canada’s police force. After Trudeau spoke on Thursday, Conservative leader Andrew Scheer called the real “erosion of trust” as one between Trudeau and Canadians.

“What we heard from Justin Trudeau was an attempt to justify and normalize corruption. It’s clearer than ever that inside his government, political interference and contempt for the rule of law are a matter of course,” Scheer wrote on Twitter. “This is a PM who has lost the moral authority to govern.”

It’s a potent talking point — but it’s still far too early to say how this will end for Trudeau and Canada’s Liberals.

Sarah Goldfeder, a principal at the Earnscliffe Strategy Group and a fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, told me that right now this case reeks of “ickiness,” but not necessarily illegality.

This is backed up by Wilson-Raybould’s testimony — again, at least at present. “It’s really important to remember Wilson-Raybould said very clearly there was nothing illegal going on, there was no violation of the law,” Queen’s University’s Rose said.

More information could certainly come out that might change this equation. Trudeau and his advisers are occupying a very murky area here, and even in the best interpretation — that Trudeau was making his desires known but ultimately left the decision up to his attorney general — is still problematic.

Questions also remain about others in his government and their involvement in this alleged pressure campaign. “It’s quite possible that some people could be charged with obstruction of justice for trying to stop the prosecution,” Duff Conacher, co-founder of the government accountability group Democracy Watch and an adjunct professor of law and politics at the University of Ottawa, told me.

The biggest problem for Trudeau right now may be that this scandal is extremely off-brand. He wasn’t supposed to be this kind of politician, which is why this controversy has resonated so strongly. It’s undermined Trudeau’s image as a positive, progressive politician — his “sunny ways” style of politics. Wilson-Rayboud’s testimony of “veiled threats” and being “barraged” by senior officials contrasts sharply with the image of a transparent, accountable government and a prime minister who promised integrity and honesty. For many Canadians, Trudeau, as a prominent political columnist said, is now an “imposter.”

“It certainly shows that their government isn’t any better than any other government,” Lori Hausegger, a political science professor and the head of the Canadian Studies program at Boise State University, told me.

And the allegations that the prime minister pressured a respected female indigenous minister, then appeared to demote her, undercuts the image of his “values-based government,” as Goldfeder called it.

Gender equality and indigenous rights are anchors of that agenda. “This is a prime minister who’s prided himself on having gender equity in his cabinet. This a prime minister who’s called himself a feminist. This is a prime minister who’s eager to deal with reconciliation with our indigenous peoples, and he’s hung out an indigenous cabinet minister, Wilson-Raybould, to dry,” Rose said. “So the optics are brutal for all those reasons.”

And those optics have only gotten worse this week. On Monday, Treasury Board president Jane Philpott quit, saying she’d lost confidence in the government in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin scandal. Philpott, a close ally of Wilson-Raybould, was another highly respected, key female member of Trudeau’s cabinet.

Experts say Philpott’s resignation is a very big deal. It’s symbolically bad (just check out Wilson-Raybould’s tweet) and, practically, could be very destabilizing to Trudeau’s government. “That’s just going to compound it for him because she’s resigning based on ethics, and she was a central cabinet minister for him,” Conacher said.

Looming over all this is Canada’s approaching 2019 federal elections. It’s not clear yet how deeply this scandal has penetrated beyond the Ottawa political bubble, but again, it’s early days. A recent Ipsos poll taken after Wilson-Raybould’s testimony gave Conservatives their biggest edge since the last election. That same poll found that more than two-thirds of respondents believed Wilson-Raybould’s version of events, compared to just about a third who believed Trudeau.

Trudeau, at this point, doesn’t seem likely to resign so close to the elections; if he did, it would likely throw his party into chaos. The ethics investigation will play out, and while that may be damning for Trudeau, the probe will likely take months and may not conclude before the October elections.

So the answer to how this scandal ends, and what it means for Trudeau, is simply, as one expert put it, “We don’t know yet.”

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