In nationally televised testimony, Butts denied her assertion that the move into Veterans Affairs was tied to her handling of SNC-Lavalin. If she felt she was being improperly pressured, he said, she should have let the prime minister know in writing.
Butts said he suggested she seek external legal advice on how to use deferred prosecution agreements, a legal tool in Canada that brings an end to a criminal prosecution in exchange for the company’s acknowledgment of wrongdoing and a hefty fine.
“I am firmly convinced that nothing happened here beyond the normal operations of government,” he said.
Echoing a claim made multiple times by Trudeau in recent weeks, Butts said that any discussions between Wilson-Raybould and officials from the prime minister’s office on SNC-Lavalin were motivated by a concern that a criminal conviction would put 9,000 jobs at risk, thanks to a decade-long ban that the company would face on bidding on government contracts.
The decision on whether to save the company from potential difficulty through a deferred prosecution agreement “was and is the attorney general’s decision to make,” Butts said. “It would, however, be Canadians’ decision to live with.”
Butts’s testimony stood in stark contrast to that of Wilson-Raybould, who testified last week that she came under “consistent and sustained” pressure and faced “veiled threats” from Trudeau and other top government officials to interfere in the case of SNC-Lavalin, which faces bribery and corruption charges stemming from work it did in Libya.
According to Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, the prime minister and his aides were concerned about what the potential loss of SNC-Lavalin jobs would do to their political fortunes in Quebec, a province that is poised to determine the fate of the Liberals during the federal election in October.
This was inappropriate, but not, in her view, illegal, she testified.
The SNC-Lavalin scandal is the most serious crisis Trudeau has faced as prime minister, and it has already cost him two cabinet ministers, who resigned citing a loss of confidence in him, and Butts, his most trusted confidant.
It has also shattered Trudeau’s brand — one that Butts helped craft — as a self-described feminist who campaigned on promises to repair Canada’s troubled relationship with its indigenous communities and usher in more transparency in politics.
Butts said that he did not want to “quarrel” with Wilson-Raybould or to “cast aspersions” on her character.
He relied on emails, contemporaneous notes and text messages dating to 2013 to dispute Wilson-Raybould’s characterization of meetings he had with her or her staffers on the SNC-Lavalin case.
In one such meeting, on Dec. 5 of last year, Wilson-Raybould testified, she told Butts that she “needed everybody to stop talking to me about SNC, as I had made up my mind, and the engagements were inappropriate.”
Butts, though, had a very different recollection of the meeting at the ritzy Chateau Laurier hotel in downtown Ottawa. He testified that he suggested she seek the advice of public servants on deferred prosecution agreements and told her that any decision “was her call.”
“We parted that meeting as friends and colleagues, and exchanged personal text messages a couple of hours later,” he said, believing that nothing was unusual about their interactions that night.
Other prime ministers have had close relationships with their principal secretaries, but the bond between Trudeau and Butts is unparalleled in Canadian politics.
The two first met as students on the campus of McGill University, and they have remained close friends, even serving as groomsmen in each other’s weddings.
Butts was widely considered the architect of Trudeau’s come-from-behind victory in the 2015 federal election, which resurrected the federal Liberals from nearly a decade in the political wilderness.
Butts continued to play a crucial role in shaping many of Trudeau’s policies and was thought to be one of the most powerful people within the prime minister’s small circle of advisers.
This relationship factored into his decision to resign in February, Butts testified.
“If I stayed on, his actions or inactions toward me could have been used to accuse him of playing favorites, that he was choosing his best friend over a minister,” Butts said.
Since Butts’s resignation, the SNC-Lavalin scandal has worsened for Trudeau, who faces an ethics investigation and calls from his political foes to resign.
The resignation from the cabinet on Monday of Jane Philpott, a family physician who was in her third cabinet post as president of the Treasury Board, took the crisis to a new level. Widely respected among her peers as a competent worker and person of sound judgment, her resignation on principle stunned observers because such an occurrence is rare.
“There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles,” she wrote in her resignation letter, “but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them.”
Though all remaining cabinet officials have said they have full confidence in the prime minister, Philpott’s resignation appears to have shaken Trudeau, who canceled some previously scheduled public appearances this week, hunkering down instead with close aides in private meetings.