At the heart of the controversy are claims that Trudeau and his team pressured then-Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould to cut a deal with SNC-Lavalin, an engineering firm from his home province of Quebec, and the implication that he demoted her when she refused.
Thursday’s remarks, made at an early-morning news conference in Ottawa, seem unlikely to tamp down a controversy that has cost Trudeau two cabinet members — both women — and his closest aide and could very well shape his election prospects.
Trudeau was expected to strike a conciliatory tone but at times sounded defensive.
“I think he failed to show true contrition,” said Janet Brown, an independent pollster and political analyst based in Calgary, Alberta. “There wasn’t a real acceptance of responsibility.”
Trudeau faced a significant challenge: defending his team without appearing to undermine testimony from the widely respected Wilson-Raybould, who was Canada’s first indigenous attorney general.
Throughout the news conference, he affirmed much of Wilson-Raybould’s account but cast his involvement as a pure-minded effort to protect pensioners and jobs.
Trudeau admitted, for the first time, that he asked Wilson-Raybould to “revisit” her decision on prosecuting SNC-Lavalin over allegations of corruption, but he insisted that he did not inappropriately pressure her to change her mind.
“Even though I heard she made a decision, I asked her if she could revisit that decision. She said that she would,” he said of a Sept. 17 meeting.
He also acknowledged mentioning to her that he was speaking as an elected representative from Quebec, where jobs were on the line, but claimed the comment was not “of a partisan nature.”
Trudeau blamed the crisis on an “erosion of trust” between his office and the cabinet.
“I was not aware of that erosion of trust and, as prime minister and leader of the federal ministry, I should have been,” he said.
Trudeau stressed he has learned lessons from the case but did not specify what they were. He closed by trying to look ahead.
“Ultimately, I believe our government will be stronger for having dealt with these issues,” he said.
But whether his government will be strengthened — or whether it can recover — is very much an open question.
The SNC-Lavalin affair started as a legal matter but has grown, week by week, into a political crisis that touches on a range of issues carrying special resonance for Trudeau, including indigenous affairs, gender, corporate influence and Quebec.
The roots of the controversy date to 2015, when Canadian authorities charged Montreal-based SNC-Lavalin with using bribes to secure business deals in Moammar Gaddafi-era Libya.
The company sought a deferred-prosecution agreement. These agreements, which are used in multiple countries, allow companies to avoid criminal conviction if they admit wrongdoing, pay fines and commit to more rigorous ethics and compliance rules.
Wilson-Raybould was involved in the case until Jan. 14, when she was moved from the justice portfolio to veterans affairs in a cabinet shuffle.
The fate of SNC-Lavalin did not make regular headlines until Feb. 7, when a report in the Globe and Mail claimed Trudeau’s team had “pressed” Wilson-Raybould to offer the firm a deferred-prosecution deal.
Trudeau responded to the Globe report by telling the news media that his government did not “direct” her on the matter. Not long after, Wilson-Raybould resigned from her cabinet post. She hired a renowned lawyer but declined to say more.
Absent testimony from Wilson-Raybould, the scandal grew. On Feb. 18, Trudeau’s closest aide, Gerald Butts, resigned in an apparent effort to take some heat off his longtime friend and boss.
It did not work. Last week, in testimony that was live-streamed across Canada, Wilson-Raybould said she was pressured by 11 members of the government to halt the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, with some resorting to “veiled threats.”
On Monday, another key minister, Jane Philpott, resigned over Trudeau’s handling of the case.
“It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our Attorney General should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases,” Philpott’s resignation letter said.
On Wednesday, Butts offered testimony of his own. He denied wrongdoing but acknowledged a breakdown of trust between Trudeau and his cabinet.
At Thursday’s news conference, Trudeau picked up this theme, saying Wilson-Raybould should have come to him if she felt pressured.
“She did not come to me, and I wish she had,” he said.
Pressed on whether he would apologize, Trudeau said he could not apologize for defending jobs.
Then he was off to catch a flight to his next engagement: an official apology over a historical injustice.