In strategic communications, no one tries to change the channel when they’re winning.
So perhaps it was no accident the PM’s press conference at 8:00am the day following the testimony of Gerald Butts, the former Principal Secretary to the Prime Minister, turned out to be a puzzling nothingburger. But the speculation leading to it and the analysis following did cut short a robust analysis of what Butts told the Commons Justice Committee.
Looking back, many of Butts’ responses to the Committee were paper-thin, based on nonsensical theories, uncorroborated personal thoughts, omitting and suppressing facts. It wasn’t credible and didn’t refute any of Wilson-Raybould’s main points.
According to Wilson-Raybould, on September 17 she told the PM and Clerk of the Privy Council that she had already decided she would not override the director of public prosecutions and direct her to offer a deferred prosecution agreement to SNC-Lavalin. Despite having made the decision – which was in her power alone to make – PMO staff, including Butts, continued in an inappropriate campaign to reverse the decision. Specifically, Wilson-Raybould alleged:
– PMO staff who reported to Butts continued to inappropriately contact Wilson-Raybould’s staff on the issue, and wanted to speak to the director of public prosecutions and the case prosecutors
– on December 5 Butts pushed the AG her to change her decision and override the director of public prosecutions
– on December 17 Butts met with the AG’s chief of staff, telling her “there’s no solution that doesn’t involve some interference”
– asking the AG to make a decision based on economic interests was inappropriate because making a decision on those grounds was explicitly “unlawful” – her words
Wilson-Raybould said she refused the pressure. Then she was removed as Attorney-General in a January 14 cabinet shuffle.
Butts said he was unaware of any inappropriate actions by his staff. He acknowledged that such interventions would be inappropriate, but said his staff would not do such thing. Conservative MPs Lisa Raitt then made a motion to receive their relevant emails and texts to confirm Butts’ assessment of his staff. The Liberal majority defeated the motion, suppressing key evidence.
In addressing the December 5 meeting, Butts’ deployed a burst of responses. Much hinges on whether the AG had made a final decision. Offering information before a decision can be appropriate. But once the AG makes her decision – and it is hers alone to make – attempts to reverse it are generally inappropriate.
Butts argued he was unaware the AG had made a final decision. Somehow in the preceding three months neither the PM or the Clerk had informed him. And somehow Butts had missed the news that the Department of the Attorney-General, in November, had responded in court to SNC-Lavalin’s application for judicial review of the decision to not offer deferred prosecution. To most people, fighting an appeal would seem to be strong evidence of support for the initial decision leading to it.
Then he gave three arguments why the decision couldn’t be final. First, he argued, the decision hadn’t been put in writing and so could not have been final. However, never before had Wilson-Raybould discussed her decisions about prosecutions with the PM – in writing or otherwise. Butts offered no legal or logical argument made for why the situation should be different in the SNC-Lavalin case.
Second, Butts argued Wilson-Raybould’s decision couldn’t have been final because she had sought the December 5 meeting at which the SNC-Lavalin case was discussed. But Wilson-Raybould testified the purpose of the meeting had nothing to do with the SNC-Lavalin case – that was something Butts tagged on at the end of the meeting. For Butts to now use his unplanned intervention as evidence that the AG’s decision wasn’t final is not only nonsensical, it was an insult to the Justice Committee.
Third, Butts argued that no decision can be final because the public interest in a case constantly evolves. Deputy Minister of the Attorney-General Nathalie Drouin, in her testimony, agreed that a prosecutor must always be open to considering new public interest considerations – new facts or evidence that should be considered. When Butts was asked by NDP MP Murray Rankin to name any new facts or evidence that might have triggered a reconsideration of the AG’s decision, Butts could not name any.
None of the explanations offered by Butts to about his December 5 intervention have much credibility.
On December 17, according to Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, Butts told her chief of staff that any solution would require some interference. Butts told the Justice Committee he didn’t remember making the statement. Then he offered a sort-of denial, saying he didn’t believe he could have said that because he doesn’t use the word “solution.”
The former Attorney-General also told the Justice Committee the grounds on which she was being pushed to overturn the director’s decision would have been “unlawful” and therefore the pushes were inappropriate. The Criminal Code lists factors to consider and not consider when evaluating whether a deferred prosecution agreement is in the public interest. Economic interests are specifically excluded from consideration – exactly what Butts claims was motivating him.
The reasons for the removal of Wilson-Raybould as AG are important, and Butts provided an alternative theory to the idea that Wilson-Raybould was removed as punishment
According to Butts, the PM wanted to promote Jane Philpott, then Minister of Indigenous Services, to President of Treasury Board, the role vacated by Scott Brison. Butts argued the work at Indigenous Services was so important to Trudeau that they needed a person of Wilson-Raybould’s caliber to fill that hole – and that need was the motive for moving Wilson-Raybould out of Attorney-General, not the SNC-Lavalin case. But that logic is badly undercut by the fact than when Wilson-Raybould declined the Ministry, it was filled by Seamus O’Reagan, hardly a strong Minister.
Gerald Butts did not knock down Wilson-Raybould’s allegations. And it doesn’t get much more serious than politicians trying to cancel the corruption trial of corporate insider friends. If that was what the Trudeau government was attempting to do, Canadians need to know. The appropriate way to investigate would be through a public inquiry. If Trudeau won’t give us that, the work of the Justice Committee must go on.