05/04/2019 05:26 EDT | Updated 05/05/2019 21:30 EDT

Gerald Butts, Trudeau’s Ex-Adviser, Opens Up On SNC-Lavalin Affair, Politics, And What's Next

An exclusive interview with the PM’s former principal secretary.

Zi-Ann Lum/HuffPost Canada
Gerald Butts speaks to HuffPost Canada's

OTTAWA — Gerald Butts, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's longtime friend and adviser, will not be replicating his role in the next election campaign, he told HuffPost Canada's "Follow-Up" podcast.

In a wide-ranging, exclusive interview — his first since the SNC-Lavalin affair erupted — Butts said he intends to move on from politics and join the private sector.

"It's no secret that I have a lot of friends who are still very actively involved, whom I care about very deeply, and I care about my country very deeply," Butts said. "... I will always be there to give them advice. But professionally, it's time for me to, you know, do other things."

Butts is widely credited as the strategic mind that propelled Trudeau, then the leader of the third-place Liberal party, to a majority government in 2015 — a first in Canadian history.

If anybody needs him, Butts said, he'll be a phone call away.

Listen to Gerald Butts' full interview, or on Apple Podcasts or Google Play.

"[New campaign director] Jeremy Broadhurst is a good friend of mine that I've worked with for many, many years. And if he or any other member of the team needs any advice on any matter whatsoever, they know where to find me."

Butts resigned from his job as Trudeau's principal secretary in February after he felt the former attorney general of Canada, Jody Wilson-Raybould, had accused him of putting pressure on her to consider a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, a large Quebec-based engineering firm.

He vehemently denies that he or anyone in Trudeau's office did anything improper. "I still believe that nothing happened here other than the normal operations of government."

Asked if he would feel some personal responsibility if the Liberals lose the election this October, Butts responded: "This is a team sport. It is not on any one person's shoulders."

Butts said he thinks the Grits will win the next election. Political opponents will be making a mistake to underestimate the rest of the team around Trudeau, he said.

"I also think it's a mistake, if you're covering them [as a journalist], to depict them as dependent upon any one person's presence," he said of his role and the impact of his departure on the office.

Sean Kilpatrick/CP
The prime minister's chief of staff Katie Telford and Gerald Butts look on as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivers his opening remarks during the Meeting of First Ministers in Ottawa on Dec. 9, 2016.

Butts said he expects the SNC-Lavalin affair "will obviously play a role in people's determinations in the fall" but won't be a "deciding factor" for many people.

"Canadians are fair people, and they make judgments based on a wide variety of the government's accomplishments and disappointments," he said.

Trudeau has been a "very good prime minister" leading a "very good government," the Liberal strategist argued.

"I think that the government is just getting started on its agenda to make the economy fairer and to make growth work for everybody... and more work needs to be done."

The next campaign, Butts predicted, will be fundamentally different than the last one. "This is something that I've said ... [to] the caucus and cabinet — that a very clear choice needs to be presented, that a re-election campaign should be about a choice, not a referendum."

While he said he'll tell the Liberals what to campaign on privately if he is asked, he told HuffPost that the most vivid difference between the Conservatives and the Grits is on the environment.

"The starkest choice is on climate, and what kind of economy that people think is going to attract new investment and jobs, and what kind of jobs do people think their kids are going to have."

Watch: Gerald Butts spars with NDP MP at justice committee. Story continues below

People think of climate as a political issue, but it's an issue of physics and chemistry, he said.

"The world is doing its best to adjust to a new climate and a new reality.... The issue for us as Canadians from a political perspective is what kind of role are we going to play in that.... I think that any time a big change like this happens, historically you're gonna have a lot of entrenched interests who want to make sure that the status quo prevails because they profit from it."

However, Trudeau appeared to take a further step back this week from the reputation he has tried to craft as an environmental stalwart. The government offered to skip impact assessment for non-mining projects that use steam to extract crude, as long as Alberta's new United Conservative Party Premier Jason Kenney maintains a hard cap on oilsands emissions.

Butts told "Follow-Up" he had planned to leave after the next election, in the spring of 2020.

"But you don't get to choose your timing in politics a lot."

Right now, he's reassessing his most important responsibilities in life.

"At this stage... I think it's really important that my kids and my family... not take on the very obvious risks associated with political life."

Butts said he was speaking not about a personal safety risk but more broadly as a "reputational risk for me personally." He wants to give his wife, Jodi, a chance to continue her rewarding career as a health care executive, he said, which was placed on hold for him to work in the Prime Minister's Office.

Fred Chartrand/CP
Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, prepares to appear before the Standing Committee on Justice and Human Rights on Parliament Hill on March 6, 2019.

"My main ambition next in life is to be a an excellent rhythm guitar player in her band."

During the hour-plus conversation, however, Butts mentioned safety several times.

"Obviously, [there is] very little I can say about this given my obligations to my former role," he replied, when asked. "But ... I don't think people appreciate how real the dangers are for people in public life right now. And I think that that is a new thing, and it's an unwelcome thing. And it was kind of surprising to me," he said.

Butts referred to the warning Michael Wernick, the then-clerk of the Privy Council Office and Canada's top public servant, gave to the Commons justice committee earlier this year when he stated he was worried about the country.

"I worry about foreign interference in the upcoming election... I worry about the rising tide of incitement to violence when people use terms like 'treason' and 'traitor' in open discourse... I'm worried that somebody is going to be shot in this country this year during the political campaign," Wernick told MPs.

Butts described being shocked by The Globe and Mail's sending a photographer to his house to capture him walking his children to school, and a television network's broadcasting a picture of his home to everyone in the country in the thick of the SNC-Lavalin controversy.

The so-called Yellow Vests protesters — known for stoking xenophobic sentiments and promoting violence — were in Ottawa at the time Butts felt his personal safety was being compromised.

Justin Tang/CP
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau leaves his office with Gerald Butts to attend an emergency cabinet meeting on Parliament Hill on April 10, 2018.

"You don't want to be in a position in any line of work you're doing where you feel like you're jeopardizing in any way — even if there's a two per cent chance in any way — the safety of your family," he said. "The combination of things that happened to my family that week after I resigned definitely played a role in my thinking about how to engage with politics in the future."

Butts was encouraged to get involved in politics after his auntie, Sister Peggy Butts, a nun who sat in the Senate for three years, told him there were two kinds of people in politics.

"There are people who want to be something and there are people who want to do something, and the latter are too few and far between."

At the top of the list of some of his proudest accomplishments, he said, was the work on the Canada Child Benefit, which has helped lift 826,000 residents out of poverty, according to Statistics Canada.

"At the end of the day, we get into politics to make lives better for people. And I don't think anything probably since Medicare has made the lives of more regular people better than the Canada Child Benefit," he said.

"It's gonna be really hard for people to change that no matter what happens in the next or any election after that," he later added.

Chris Young/CP
Gerald Butts chats with Justin Trudeau after taking part in a Liberal leadership debate in Mississauga, Ont., on Feb. 16, 2013.

That's the same benchmark he used to note some of the policies he helped spur while working as a senior adviser to former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty.

"The proudest day that I've had in politics was, ironically, last year during the Ontario provincial election, when it was revealed that the... leader of the Progressive Conservative Party and now premier had been recorded promising prominent developers in the Greater Toronto Area that he would open up the Greenbelt for development. And once it became revealed that that promise had been made, he had to walk it back by supper time that day."

In politics, he said, you have to try to stay focused on things that are going to be enduring.

"That may not be apparent when you're ... taking two million acres of farmland and sensitive ecological land [and] making sure they couldn't be developed." That was very contentious, he said, "but I think it's gonna be very difficult to change.

"I feel the same way about the coal retirement strategy in Ontario since the 2003 election when the team proposed it."

Four provincial elections have passed and no party has campaigned to reopen a coal plant in Ontario, Butts noted. "In fact, you now have the government of the day endorsing it so strongly that they argue that Ontario doesn't need to do anything else about climate change."

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While the SNC-Lavalin story has consumed much of political Ottawa's attention, Butts wants to look back on the past seven years at Trudeau's side with a wider lens: the success and time-consuming effort behind the new NAFTA, trade deals with Europe and Trans-Pacific countries, climate action, infrastructure spending, and broader, more generous social policy.

Still, the shadow of the SNC-Lavalin affair looms. The ethics commissioner is investigating the allegations that the PMO acted improperly.

In late February, Wilson-Raybould told a Commons committee that there had been "sustained efforts at communications, not only with me but with my office, from various members of the Prime Minister's Office, including... Gerry Butts and Katie Telford."

In an interview published in April, however, the former attorney general told Maclean's magazine that Butts had not pressured her.

Wilson-Raybould never complained to him about any pressure she was feeling from members of the prime minister's staff, he said. During the fall, he felt she and Jane Philpott, the other federal minister who quit in protest against the PMO's handling of the controversy, were working together with the government towards common objectives.

"I don't think in retrospect that we were."

"I was not aware that the SNC-Lavalin matter was such a major factor in her thinking about her colleagues," he offered, by way of explanation.

Butts declined to say whether Wilson-Raybould demanded that Trudeau ask for his resignation. "I think that that is probably gonna be something that the ethics commissioner looks into. So, I'm not going to say one way or another."

The Canadian Press
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Jody Wilson-Raybould take part in the grand entrance as the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation commission is released on Dec. 15, 2015 in Ottawa.

He also invited the ethics commissioner to ask him about any possible requests Philpott may have made of the prime minister. Butts refused to answer whether she had asked for PMO staffer Mathieu Bouchard to be fired as a way of placating Wilson-Raybould.

Philpott told CTV's "Question Period" in April that she was not at liberty to say what had happened because of her oath as a member of the Privy Council. She said she felt it was unfair she couldn't defend herself against leaked, one-sided information.

Asked if he trusts Wilson-Raybould, Butts responded: "I don't think that matters."

And despite the Liberal support's plunging in public opinion polls and a two-plus-month-long saga consuming federal politics, Butts said he has no regrets about the cabinet-making advice he gave the prime minister.

"I think it was the right advice.... There was no way to predict what happened."

He and the prime minister still talk. Trudeau called last week to wish Butts and his wife a good hiking trip to Utah's national parks.

The Canadian Press
Independent MPs Jane Philpott and Jody Wilson-Raybould vote in the House of Commons on April 9, 2019.

"We were friends... a very long time before he was in public life, and I'm sure we'll be friends a lot longer than he will be in public life. That's good. That's good. We're good friends."

After the SNC issue landed on the front pages of newspapers, Butts said he received some valuable advice from someone of a different political stripe.

"No matter what happens," he said he was told, "you have to resist seeing yourself through the prism that other people are trying to create for you."

Still, it's clear some characterizations bother him. He thinks a description of himself in a Globe and Mail profile last month that referred to him as more instinctive and less organized than Trudeau's chief of staff, Katie Telford, was inaccurate and the product of journalists trying to put frames around relationships they don't intimately understand. "[My wife] joked with me... [that] it was a surprise to her to learn that I was overly emotional."

This week, Butts wrote a Facebook post stating: "Supposition: nothing of a high degree of difficulty can be done without a corresponding degree of trust among the people trying to do that thing. Discuss." He suggested he threw that out there just as an "interesting question."

"I was thinking about what I'm doing next with my life, frankly," he said.

And what's that?

"TBD," he answered.