Prime Minster Justin Trudeau says he didn’t realize there was an “erosion of trust” between his office and former attorney-general Jody Wilson-Raybould over the fall of 2018 and acknowledged he should have realized this was taking place.
The Prime Minister used an early morning press conference in Ottawa to speak at length about the political crisis that has engulfed his government over the past month and triggered the resignation of one of his most senior aides and two cabinet ministers including Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
He offered no apologies for what has taken place, acknowledged no wrongdoing in what has unfolded since The Globe and Mail reported on Feb. 7 that officials in the Prime Minister’s Office put pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould to reach a negotiated settlement with SNC-Lavalin.
Jody Wilson-Raybould testified to the Commons Justice Committee that she faced “consistent and sustained” political pressure from Mr. Trudeau and top officials when she was attorney-general, including “veiled threats” to shelve the criminal prosecution of the Montreal construction and engineering giant.
What Mr. Trudeau did acknowledge Thursday morning is that he should have paid more attention to growing friction between his staff and Ms. Wilson Raybould.
“What has become clear over the various testimonies is over the past months there was an erosion or trust between my office, my former principal secretary and the former attorney-general,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters at the National Press Theatre.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust. As Prime Minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have been,” he said.
He said he will be seeking outside advice on whether to separate the posts of attorney-general and justice minister as well as practices and operations of cabinet.
Asked whether he was making an apology in his Thursday address to media, Mr. Trudeau indicated he was not. He said he won’t apologize for defending SNC-Lavalin jobs.
He characterized what has happened as a case where “situations were experienced differently – and I regret that.”
Mr. Trudeau noted instead he would be making an apology to the Inuit later Thursday in Iqaluit for how Ottawa handled tuberculosis outbreaks in the North last century.
He framed what has occurred as a learning opportunity for his government.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau was asked why the PMO and Privy Council Office, the bureaucratic agency that serves the leadership of government, continued to press Ms. Wilson-Raybould after Sept. 17 when she told him to back off.
He insisted he still did not realize that Ms. Wilson-Raybould was unwilling to consider the matter further.
The Prime Minister pointed out the terms of a deferred prosecution agreement allow it to be set up even in the last minutes of a trial.
“We considered she was still open to hearing different arguments and different approaches,” he said.
“As we now learned during her testimony [last week], that was not the case.”
If convicted on the corruption and fraud charges it faces, SNC-Lavalin could be banned from bidding on federal contracts for 10 years – a major economic blow.
In a negotiated settlement, a company admits wrongdoing and pays a fine, but avoids a trial. SNC-Lavalin faces one charge of corruption under the Corruption of Foreign Public Officials Act and one count of fraud under the Criminal Code. It is alleged SNC-Lavalin paid millions of dollars in bribes to public officials in Libya between 2001 and 2011 to secure government contracts.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould has testified that senior government officials between September and December last year kept returning to the question of the company’s pending criminal prosecution, even after she told them her mind was made up and that she supported the director’s decision. She listed 10 conversations or meetings that involved 11 officials.
The B.C. MP told the committee last week that she cautioned Mr. Trudeau on Sept. 17 that she decided to proceed with the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin rather than grant the company a deferred prosecution. She told him “I had done my due diligence and had made up my mind on SNC and that I was not going to interfere with the decision of the director.”
After Mr. Trudeau reminded her that day he was an MP from Montreal, where SNC-Lavalin is based, Ms. Wilson-Raybould testified last week that she asked him to stand down.
“Are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the Attorney-General? I would strongly advise against it,” the former minister told the Commons justice committee last week.
DANIEL LEBLANC, PARLIAMENTARY AFFAIRS REPORTER
ROBERT FIFE, OTTAWA BUREAU CHIEF
The Globe and Mail, March 7, 2019