POLITICS
03/06/2019 16:56 EST | Updated 03/08/2019 10:56 EST

Gerald Butts Gives His Version Of How A 'Tidy' Trudeau Cabinet Shuffle Blew Up

The PM's former adviser says Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be attorney general if not for Scott Brison's exit from cabinet.

It was supposed to be a "tidy" cabinet shuffle to replace a key member of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's inner circle.

Instead, the decisions leading to that fateful January morning may have helped set in motion a series of events that now threaten Trudeau's government altogether.

Gerald Butts, the prime minister's former principal secretary and best friend, testified before the House of Commons justice committee Wednesday, giving his side of the SNC-Lavalin affair.

He denied charges made by former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould that she faced "inappropriate" pressure from Trudeau, key aides, and other senior government officials to help the Quebec engineering giant avoid a criminal trial on corruption charges through a remediation agreement.

Justin Tang/CP
Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, prepares to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights regarding the SNC Lavalin Affair in Ottawa on March 6, 2019.

Butts also alleged that Wilson-Raybould did not complain about feeling improperly pressured to put a stop to SNC-Lavalin's prosecution until after she had been moved from her powerful perch as Canada's attorney general and justice minister.

The former insider, who quit the Prime Minister's Office weeks ago amid the escalating controversy, also gave his account of what he says went on behind the scenes of the Jan. 14 shuffle that saw Wilson-Raybould become veterans affairs minister. The move was widely seen as a major demotion for the first Indigenous person to serve as attorney general.

Wilson-Raybould quit as veterans affairs minister last month. Jane Philpott, seen as a star performer, resigned from Trudeau's cabinet this week. Philpott said she had lost confidence in the government's response to the SNC-Lavalin affair and allegations the former attorney general faced inappropriate political interference.

But first: let's go back.

When longtime Nova Scotia MP Scott Brison decided to retire from politics, Trudeau was left with two immediate concerns: to find a new Treasury Board president and to name someone from Nova Scotia in Brison's place, lest that province have no representation around his table. Liberals won every single Atlantic Canada seat in 2015.

The Canadian Press
MP Scott Brison is given a standing ovation during his farewell speech in the House of Commons on Feb. 6, 2019.

Brison's resignation put the prime minister in a "tough spot," Butts said Wednesday.

Trudeau tapped Ontario's Philpott for Treasury and sent Newfoundland and Labrador's Seamus O'Regan to fill her vacant spot at Indigenous Services. Bernadette Jordan was the Nova Scotian chosen for a new post: minister of rural economic development.

But none of those moves explained why Wilson-Raybould was moved as attorney general.

During her explosive testimony to the justice committee last week, Wilson-Raybould said she felt she was shuffled because of a decision she wouldn't take over SNC-Lavalin.

She alleged there were "veiled threats" about her role from Canada's top public servant in December. Privy Council clerk Michael Wernick denied in his second testimony before the committee Wednesday that he threatened Wilson-Raybould in any way.

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In response to the controversy, Trudeau spurred some mockery for repeatedly saying that if Brison had not resigned, Wilson-Raybould would still be attorney general today.

On Wednesday, Butts said precisely the same thing.

"While the attorney general is the decision maker on remediation agreements, the prime minister is the decision maker on cabinet shuffles," he said. "The January cabinet shuffle had nothing whatsoever to do with SNC-Lavalin."

Butts says he tried to prevent a cabinet shuffle

Butts testified that Brison told him and Katie Telford, Trudeau's chief of staff, on Dec. 12 that he would not run again in the next election and would soon leave cabinet.

"We did all we could to dissuade him, to take Christmas to think about it, and at least give the prime minister a chance to talk him out of it," Butts said. "I said it would trigger a cabinet shuffle and the prime minister was happy with the team he had."

Butts said there were concerns over the fact that two other N.S. Liberals — Bill Casey and Colin Fraser — had already announced they wouldn't re-offer. Like Brison, Casey is a former Tory MP representing a riding where Conservatives can be expected to perform strongly this fall.

If they chose a minister from the "class of 2015," Butts said, more experienced N.S. MPs such as Rodger Cuzner and Mark Eyking could interpret that "as a signal" and opt not to run again.

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau greets Minister of Rural Economic Development Minister Bernadette Jordan at a swearing in ceremony at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2019.

Trudeau, in the end, did just that by choosing Jordan. Eyking announced last month that his name won't be on the ballot this fall.

Butts said his first piece of advice to Trudeau was to do "all we could" to avoid a shuffle, but Brison couldn't be convinced to stay.

"If Minister Brison had not resigned, Minister Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice today. That is a fact," Butts said. "A fact that is inconsistent and incompatible with the story many are trying to tell. But it is a fact nonetheless. And facts are stubborn things."

Philpott was the logical choice for Treasury Board, Wilson-Raybould was offered Indigenous Services, he says

Butts said the prime minister felt the next Treasury Board president needed ministerial experience. The role involves overseeing government spending and is critically important to the functioning of government.

As the then-vice-chair of the Treasury Board cabinet committee, Philpott fit the bill.

But Trudeau fretted about how such a move could be seen and "wanted a person in Indigenous Services who would send a strong signal that the work would keep going at the same pace," Butts said.

Wilson-Raybould was seen as the best person for the job, with David Lametti, a former McGill law professor, tapped to become attorney general and justice minister, Butts said.

"That was the context in which the prime minister made the decision to move Minister Wilson-Raybould."

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jane Philpott take part in a cabinet shuffle at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2019.

Philpott thought Wilson-Raybould would be an excellent pick for Indigenous Services, but worried she would see it as a demotion, Butts said.

"Minister Philpott then told the prime minister that she worried Wilson-Raybould might wonder if her move (was) connected to the 'DPA issue,'" he said, referring to deferred prosecution agreements, as remediation deals are also known.

"That was the first time I ever heard anyone suggest that this cabinet shuffle was in any way related to the SNC-Lavalin file."

Though Trudeau was "disturbed and surprised" by that concern, Butts said, he stuck with the plan.

Wilson-Raybould turned down Indigenous Services role, he says

Butts also detailed a Jan. 7 conversation he said took place between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould over the looming shuffle.

"(Trudeau) said that he didn't want to shuffle cabinet but that he needed our best players to move in order to pitch in," Butts said, adding the the prime minister suggested more cabinet changes could come if Liberals are re-elected in October.

Wilson-Raybould expressed shock because she already had her "dream job," he said, and felt she was being shuffled out for "other reasons." Trudeau denied this, Butts said.

"Then Minister Wilson-Raybould did something I didn't expect. I had never seen anyone do it before, in many shuffles, over many years," he said. "The former attorney general turned down a cabinet portfolio."

Wilson-Raybould rejected the Indigenous Services role, he said, because she had "spent her life opposed to the Indian Act" that governs the federal government's relationship with Indigenous peoples and "couldn't be in charge of the programs administered under its authority."

Butts conceded that he should have expected Wilson-Raybould to take such a position.

"I should have known that," he said.

So, how did Wilson-Raybould end up in Veterans Affairs?

Butts said he advised Trudeau that allowing a minister to "veto a cabinet shuffle by refusing to move" would soon make it too difficult to manage his team.

"My advice was that the prime minister should not set the precedent that a cabinet minister could refuse a new position and effectively remain in one position for the life of the government," he said.

The furthest they could go, he said, was offering the Veterans Affairs post.

And though Wilson-Raybould accepted the job, it soon became clear that "trust had broken down" between her and Trudeau's office.

"I tried to counter misapprehensions with repeated, honest efforts," he said. "In the end, I was unable to do so. And here we are today."

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau looks on as Jody Wilson-Raybould becomes veterans affairs minister at Rideau Hall in Ottawa on Jan. 14, 2019.

On the day of the shuffle, both Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould denied to reporters that she had been demoted.

"I would caution anyone who thinks that serving our veterans and making sure they get the care to which they are so justly entitled from any Canadian government is anything other than a deep and awesome responsibility," Trudeau said.

Hours later, Wilson-Raybould released a lengthy statement that foreshadowed trouble ahead.

She said it is a "pillar of our democracy" that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference.

"It has always been my view that the Attorney General of Canada must be non-partisan, more transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions, and, in this respect, always willing to speak truth to power," she said in her release.

"This is how I served throughout my tenure in that role."

With a file from The Canadian Press