Trudeau’s Political Woes Mount With Demands for More Inquiries
OTTAWA — If Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had any thought that a burgeoning political scandal could be quietly contained, that hope vanished on Thursday, as Canadians dissected the explosive testimony from his former justice minister before a parliamentary committee.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a minister strafe her own government like this,” said Andrew MacDougall, who was the spokesman for Stephen Harper, the Conservative prime minister Mr. Trudeau replaced in 2015. “It just reinforces people’s perception that all politicians are kind of bent.”
During nearly four hours of testimony before the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday evening, the former minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, repeatedly contradicted and undermined Mr. Trudeau’s assertions that neither he nor his staff acted improperly in trying to settle a criminal case against SNC-Lavalin, a multinational construction and engineering company based in Montreal.
Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s description of 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the criminal case from senior government officials dominated social media and news coverage in Canada on Thursday, as Andrew Scheer, the Conservative opposition leader in Parliament, asked the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to open a criminal investigation of the matter.
Mr. Trudeau, who is running for re-election this fall, is already fending off a call for his resignation by Mr. Scheer as well as demands for an independent public inquiry. On Thursday night, Canada’s House of Commons will hold an emergency debate about the controversy.
Parliament’s ethics commissioner is already looking at the accusations.
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Mr. Trudeau has acknowledged that he and others spoke with Ms. Wilson-Raybould about cutting a deal in the case, in which SNC-Lavalin has been charged with paying millions of dollars in bribes to officials in Libya while the country was controlled by the dictator Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, but he has denied acting improperly.
The deal would have seen the company pay a large penalty but not receive a criminal conviction, which would have barred it from government work for a decade — and possibly led to its leaving Canada or cutting thousands of jobs, particularly in Quebec.
On Thursday, Mr. Trudeau rejected Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s assertion that her talks with government officials were improper “political interference” delivered with “veiled threats.”
“Canadians expect their government to look for ways to protect jobs, to grow the economy and that’s exactly what we’ve done every step of the way,” Mr. Trudeau told reporters in Montreal. “But we’ve also done it in a way that has respected our laws and respected the independence of the judiciary.”
Mr. Trudeau predicted that the justice committee, which is controlled by his Liberal Party, and the ethics commissioner, whose role largely limits him to monitoring potential conflicts of interest, will vindicate him.
But several analysts said Mr. Trudeau may find it difficult to avoid an independent inquiry.
“While the government doesn’t want to subject itself to weeks of intense scrutiny, not opening it up looks very bad,” said Emmett Macfarlane, an associate professor of political science at the University of Waterloo in Ontario.
“If this drags out,” he added, “how do they avoid a process that has the potential to conclude that this is something shady that happens behind the scenes all the time?”
John Duffy, a former adviser in a previous Liberal government, pointed out that although Ms. Wilson-Raybould, who also served as attorney general, accused Mr. Trudeau and his aides of acting improperly, she acknowledged in her testimony that no one pressuring her about SNC-Lavalin broke any laws and specifically assured Canadians that the judicial system was not broken.
“I’m not trying to make it out that this was a civics textbook example of how things should work out,” Mr. Duffy said, adding that in the end Ms. Wilson-Raybould did not give the company a break and the prosecution has continued.
“But this is about governing style, the sausage making,” he said.
That is not, however, an assessment shared by Mr. Trudeau’s opponents, who have cast the affair as a group made up mostly of men ganging up on a woman who was trying to uphold the principle of judicial dependence.
Norman Spector, who was chief of staff to Brian Mulroney, the former Canadian prime minister, said most people now likely view the affair “as a pretty simplistic story about the Liberals helping their friend in Quebec.”
“They will have suspicions that the system is rigged,” added Mr. Spector, who recently was an adviser to the Green Party of British Columbia.
While Mr. Spector believes that Mr. Trudeau will vigorously resist calls for an inquiry, he noted that the prime minister has already backed off from several positions in the controversy.
Most notably, the Liberal majority on the justice committee kept Ms. Wilson-Raybould off its initial witness list for its hearings before adding her.
On Thursday, Gerald Butts, a close friend of Mr. Trudeau’s who stepped down as his top political adviser last week because of the controversy, asked the justice committee to call him as a witness.
Last month, Ms. Wilson-Raybould was moved from Canada’s Justice Department to Veterans Affairs, a step now widely linked to her resistance on the SNC-Lavalin case. This month she quit the cabinet entirely, although she declined to offer a specific reason for that decision.
Mr. Trudeau said on Thursday that he was reviewing her status as a member of the Liberal caucus in Parliament, where Ms. Wilson-Raybould continues to represent a constituency in Vancouver, British Columbia.
While several Liberals have said privately that several caucus members want her removed, that action has the potential to make her a political martyr.
“If I was advising the prime minister, I would be very hesitant to recommend that he take that action,” Professor Macfarlane said.