Friend, Adviser, Witness: Trudeau’s Fate Could Hinge on Confidant’s Testimony

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.”

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.”

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