Friend, Adviser, Witness: Trudeau’s Fate Could Hinge on Confidant’s Testimony
TORONTO — They were college friends, canoeing pals and debating team buddies who were in one another’s wedding parties.
Together, they fashioned a campaign that catapulted them into Canada’s top office — Justin Trudeau as the country’s optimistic prime minister and his best friend Gerald Butts as his adviser, strategist and political slugger.
Now they are caught in political turmoil over accusations that the Trudeau government improperly tried to influence a criminal prosecution. The controversy could threaten Mr. Trudeau’s job and destroy the legacy they spent years carefully building.
On Wednesday, Mr. Butts — who abruptly resigned just as the problems were beginning to compound and declined to be interviewed for this article — will testify before the Parliament’s justice committee.
“A lot is at stake,” said Myer Siemiatycki, a politics professor at Ryerson University in Toronto. “He’s as close as we’ll get to the prime minister describing the events and providing a counternarrative.”
The problems began last month with accusations that the prime minister and his team, including Mr. Butts, had pressured the country’s justice minister at the time, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to settle a criminal case against a large Canadian company without a conviction because a criminal penalty could potentially jeopardize thousands of Canadian jobs.
The company, SNC-Lavalin, has been accused of bribing officials in Libya’s former government under the dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi.
Shortly after the accusations, Ms. Wilson-Raybould resigned from the cabinet — and later explained why on live television in testimony before the justice committee. She described in detail how she felt improperly pressured from Mr. Trudeau and people close to him about the case.
On Monday, the political crisis deepened when a second prominent cabinet minister, Jane Philpott, resigned in solidarity with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, saying she had lost confidence in “how the government has dealt with this matter.”
Mr. Trudeau has denied any impropriety, saying he had been standing up for Canadian jobs.
On Monday, though, he acknowledged that serious concerns had been raised but said debate and disagreement is part of a healthy democracy.
[You can read more here about the SNC-Lavalin case and how it has entangled Mr. Trudeau.]
Two weeks ago, in an unexpected move, Mr. Butts left his post. In a resignation letter, he categorically denied pressuring Ms. Wilson-Raybould, and said he and “those around me acted with integrity.”
He was quitting, he said, so the prime minister could continue undistracted with the “vital work” for “all Canadians.”
Even though he no longer works for the Trudeau government, Mr. Butts’s testimony is expected to flesh out the prime minister’s side of the story. There is no one closer to Mr. Trudeau: He was not only Mr. Trudeau’s chief political adviser, but his best friend.
“It’s very, very unusual for someone who is so close to the prime minister to be his right-hand man,” said Sheamus Murphy, an adviser to the Liberal Party before Mr. Trudeau became leader.
Mr. Trudeau and Mr. Butts met in the early 1990s, when they were both students at McGill University in Montreal.
They were a study in contrasts: Mr. Trudeau, the son of a wealthy former prime minister who had grown up inside Ottawa’s political establishment, and Mr. Butts, the son of a coal miner and nurse from the hardscrabble town of Glace Bay, Nova Scotia, on the island of Cape Breton.
Though many critics of the Liberal government have said Mr. Trudeau’s family name and good looks swept him into politics, most will grudgingly agree that Mr. Butts got where he is with brains and political acumen.
At McGill, the two were on the debating team, where Mr. Butts shone, twice winning the country’s title.
He graduated with a master’s degree in literature in 1996, and then worked at a research firm before jumping into politics. In 1999, he joined the Liberal Party team of Dalton McGuinty, who, with his help, would become premier of Ontario.
As Mr. McGuinty’s principal secretary, Mr. Butts became known for his ability to construct an engaging political narrative and for his remarkable networking skills. Like Mr. Trudeau, he developed a reputation for his charisma and a natural emotional intelligence.
“He really has the ability to relate to both the upper echelon and leaders of society and to my dad in St. Catharines, where he came for a dinner of chili,” said Jamison Steeve, an executive director of a Toronto think tank who had worked for Mr. Butts in the Ontario Liberal government for three years.
“There’s a real authenticity to him,” he added.
Some people who have worked with Mr. Butts say his high level of self-confidence and direct style can sometimes make him appear arrogant in discussions.
But Stuart Cobbett, a lawyer who sat on McGill’s board of governors with Mr. Butts, said his style was “direct but polite, never brusque.”
“He sizes up people and issues very well,” he said.
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In 2008, Mr. Butts, who shares Mr. Trudeau’s concern for the environment, left politics to run the Canadian branch of the World Wildlife Fund.
Four years later, Mr. Trudeau called to tell Mr. Butts he was thinking about running for leader of the Liberal Party. His old friend agreed to help lead his campaign.
Many credit him, along with Katie Telford, for Mr. Trudeau’s unexpected win in 2015.
Mr. Butts and Mr. Trudeau seemed to make a Liberal Party dream team — Mr. Butts a rumpled id to Mr. Trudeau’s tidy coiffure and themed socks.
While Mr. Trudeau usually refrained from wading into messy partisan fights, Mr. Butts threw mud on Twitter, lashing out at political opponents and sparring with journalists.
Mr. Butts’s resignation cast him both as the government’s chosen fall guy and an independent fighter who could freely defend his reputation, unencumbered by the government’s strict script and rules of confidentiality.
But when he testifies before the justice committee on Wednesday, he must strike a delicate balance, said Lori Turnbull, a professor of political science at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
“He has to be very careful,” she said, to avoid suggesting that Ms. Wilson-Raybould lied in her testimony.
At the same time, Ms. Turnbull said, he must match the former minister’s detailed chronology of events if he’s going to persuade the public that there is a different story to be told.
Political experts wonder if Mr. Butts will pull his punches on Wednesday, conscious of how Mr. Trudeau’s reputation as a clean politician, who campaigned on running a transparent, ethical government, is at stake.
“I will be watching as much what he says as his style and tone when he talks,” said Maureen Mancuso, a professor of political science at the University of Guelph, who like many in the country plans to closely watch Mr. Butts’ testimony. “There’s a lot at risk here.”
“He is up against not just one but two female cabinet ministers who have resigned,” she continued. “His job is not just to fill in the gaps in the narrative but to kick-start the rehabilitation of the Trudeau political brand.”
She added, “He’s in a tough spot.”