Staff | Report
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday addressed the Canadian public extensively for the first time on the political affair surrounding SNC-Lavalin, saying an “erosion of trust” between his office and the former attorney-general led to the scandal.
The embattled prime minister explained from the National Press Theatre that he “was not aware of that erosion of trust and as prime minister and leader of the ministry, I should have been” — denying any illegal wrongdoing.
Trudeau said the breakdown largely happened between his close friend and top aide Gerald Butts and then-attorney general and justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, who has since quit cabinet, essentially following Butts’ testimony from Wednesday.
The prime minister maintained that there was no inappropriate pressure on ex-justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and that he did his “utmost, legitimately” to protect jobs, saying he wished the former attorney general was more clear.
“I can repeat and reassure Canadians that there was no breakdown of our systems, of our rule of law, of the integrity of our institutions,” Trudeau said on the scandal, which has so far prompted two cabinet resignations and the exit of his top advisor.
The former AG, Wilson-Raybould, said she was inappropriately pressured to help the SNC-Lavalin company to avoid harsh criminal charges via a deferred prosecution agreement — an accusation that the Prime Minister’s Office denies.
Butts, who resigned from the Prime Minister’s Office in February, testified at the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday, offering for the first time a different perspective on the controversy since Wilson-Raybould testified a week previous.
Pundits expected that Trudeau could apologize unconditionally for the changes and Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer called for the prime minister to step down — Trudeau has done neither, saying that Wilson-Raybould did not bring her concerns to him.
Trudeau denied that a cabinet shuffle in January that moved Wilson-Raybould from the attorney general and justice minister position to another was due to her action or inaction on SNC-Lavalin.
Butts denied on Wednesday that there was any inappropriate pressure on Wilson-Raybould, saying that any and all official communication with her was to make sure she was aware of the implications of potentially lost jobs if SNC was charged.
Trudeau said he has asked for a set of external set of opinions on the dual role of the justice minister and attorney general, as well as the operating policies for cabinet ministers and staff related to dealings on judicial matters.
“Ultimately, I believe our government will be stronger for having dealt with these issues,” he told gathered reporters.
The Conservative Party chief, Andrew Scheer, spoke to reporters shortly before 1 p.m., saying that the rule of law is a fundamental pillar of our democracy, yet we have been seeing Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “corrupt that rule of law and try to cover it up.”
Scheer is still calling on Trudeau to resign and said Thursday’s comments “a phony act of fake sincerity”, adding that “he can’t manage his own office, let alone the affairs of a great nation…I would never interfere in an independent investigation.”
New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh held a town hall in Toronto, where he questioned Trudeau’s statement. Singh put out a strongly-worded tweet saying the “erosion of trust is with [Canadians] — we need a public inquiry.”
Green Party Leader Elizabeth May said Justin Trudeau’s response to the SNC-Lavalin affair on Thursday was an “underwhelming effort”.
May suggested that Trudeau have the “courage” to invite Jody Wilson-Raybould back into the justice minister position.
“Learn what prosecutorial independence means and stop compromising it,” May concluded.
Social media has been ablaze with reaction to the prime minister’s press conference — a mix of anti- and pro-Trudeau response.
“The truth is somewhere but not necessarily what we are hearing from both sides but somewhere in the middle,” one tweet read.
Others denounced his lack of an apology.
Image of Trudeau at the press conference from social media.