While everyone in the U.S. was watching the Cohen testimony Wednesday, some even more dramatic testimony was happening in Canada. Former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould testified that she had faced a sustained, political pressure campaign from the Prime Minister and others acting on his behalf to intervene in the prosecution of a Quebec-based engineering company called SNC-Lavalin.
Wilson-Raybould, her Deputy AG, and her Chief of Staff were contacted approximately 20 times (half in person, half by phone) over a period of four months to demand that she intervene in the case and allow for a deferred prosecution agreement which would essentially allow SNC to pay its way out of legal trouble. During many of those discussions, it became very clear the motive for the demands was nakedly political. The company had threatened to pack up its Montreal headquarters and move to London, potentially creating a job-losing spectacle just weeks before an election. The Prime Minister was worried his party would suffer unless the company was given a pass.
On Feb. 7, the Globe and Mail reported that Wilson-Raybould had been subject to a pressure campaign by the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister has been slowly admitting to more and more contact with AG Wilson-Raybould on the matter but she was not able to say anything because the conversations were covered by “solicitor-client privilege.” But under public pressure, PM Trudeau waived that privilege and so yesterday Wilson-Raybould gave a lengthy statement detailing the pressure campaign followed by three hours of questioning.
Wilson-Raybould’s recounting of every contact made with her about the SNC-Lavalin case is too long to excerpt in full, but here is her own summary from the start of her testimony:
For a period of approximately four months between September and December 2018, I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion in my role as the Attorney General of Canada in an inappropriate effort to secure a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with SNC-Lavalin. These events involved 11 people (excluding myself and my political staff) – from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Privy Council Office, and the Office of the Minister of Finance. This included in-person conversations, telephone calls, emails, and text messages. There were approximately 10 phone calls and 10 meetings specifically about SNC-Lavalin that I and/or my staff was a part of.
Within these conversations, there were express statements regarding the necessity for interference in the SNC-Lavalin matter, the potential for consequences, and veiled threats if a DPA was not made available to SNC. These conversations culminated on December 19, 2018, with a phone conversation I had with the Clerk of the Privy Council – a conversation for which I will provide some significant detail.
A few weeks later, on January 7, 2019, I was informed by the Prime Minister that I was being shuffled out of the role of Minister of Justice and the Attorney General of Canada.
On Sep. 4, 2018 Wilson-Raybould was informed by the Director of Public Prosecutions, Kathleen Roussel, that there would be no deferred prosecution agreement in the SNC-Lavalin case. Two days later, the AG’s office began getting calls from other elements within the government asking that Wilson-Raybould intercede. On Sep. 17th Wilson-Raybould was scheduled to have a meeting with PM Trudeau on an unrelated issue. However, as soon as she entered his office he began talking about SNC-Lavalin:
The Prime Minister asks me to help out – to find a solution here for SNC – citing that if there was no DPA there would be many jobs lost and that SNC will move from Montreal.
In response, I explained to him the law and what I have the ability to do and not do under the Director of Public Prosecutions Act around issuing Directives or Assuming Conduct of Prosecutions. I told him that I had done my due diligence and made up my mind on SNC and that I was not going to interfere with the decision of the DPP.
In response the PM further reiterated his concerns. I then explained how this came about and that I had received the section 13 note from the DPP earlier in September and that I had considered the matter very closely. I further stated that I was very clear on my role as the AG – and I am not prepared to issue a directive in this case – that it was not appropriate.
The PM again cited potential loss of jobs and SNC moving. Then to my surprise – the Clerk started to make the case for the need to have a DPA – he said “there is a board meeting on Thursday (Sept 20) with stock holders” … “they will likely be moving to London if this happens”… “and there is an election in Quebec soon”…
At that point the PM jumped in stressing that there is an election in Quebec and that “and I am an MP in Quebec – the member for Papineau”.
I was quite taken aback. My response – and I remember this vividly – was to ask the PM a direct question while looking him in the eye – I asked: “Are you politically interfering with my role / my decision as the AG? I would strongly advise against it.”
The Prime Minister said “No, No, No – we just need to find a solution.”
That’s really a good summary of how the entire campaign went. People kept calling and claiming there had to be some “solution” while simultaneously pretending they were not involved in a pressure campaign to arrange politically motivated justice. On December 18th, Wilson-Raybould’s Chief of Staff was summoned for a meeting with Trudeau’s principal secretary, i.e. his top political adviser, Gerald Butts. After the meeting, the Chief of Staff texted a summary of what happened to Wilson-Raybould:
Basically, they want a solution. Nothing new. They want external counsel retained to give you an opinion on whether you can review the DPP’s decision here and whether you should in this case. … I told them that would be interference. Gerry said “Jess, there is no solution here that doesn’t involve some interference.” At least they are finally being honest about what they are asking you to do!
Last Monday, as the scandal was spreading, Gerald Butts resigned. From the NY Times:
In a statement announcing his departure, Gerald Butts, who has been a close friend of Mr. Trudeau’s since their university days, linked his leaving to the allegations that he, the prime minister and others improperly pressured Jody Wilson-Raybould, when she was the justice minister and attorney general, to quash the criminal prosecution of a major Canadian engineering and construction company.
Mr. Butts repeatedly denied in his resignation letter that any such action took place.
“Any accusation that I or the staff put pressure on the attorney general is simply not true,” Mr. Butts wrote. “But the fact is that this accusation exists. It cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the prime minister and his office is doing for all Canadians.”
Those denials ring pretty hollow in light of the text messages and other contemporaneous accounts which Wilson-Raybould made of the interference campaign. The final act of this disgrace came on January 7, 2019 when, having not succumbed to the pressure, Wilson-Raybould was abruptly removed from her job by the PM:
On January 7, I received a call from the PM and was informed I was being shuffled out of my role as MOJAG. I will not go into details of this call, or subsequent communications about the shuffle, but I will say that I stated I believed the reason was because of the SNC matter. They denied this to be the case.
On January 11, 2019 – the Friday before the shuffle. My former Deputy Minister is called by the Clerk and told that the shuffle is happening, and that she will be getting a new Minister. As part of this conversation, the Clerk tells the Deputy that one of the first conversations that the new Minister will be expected to have with the PM will be on SNC Lavalin. In other words, that the new Minister will need to be prepared to speak to the PM on this file.
Could it be any more blatant? Yesterday, Paul Wells wrote a scathing opinion piece for Macleans about the scandal:
What the former attorney general described tonight is a sickeningly smug protection racket whose participants must have been astonished when she refused to play along. If a company can rewrite the Criminal Code to get out of a trial whose start date was set before the legislation was drafted, all because a doomed Quebec government has its appointment with the voter, then which excesses are not permitted, under the same justification? If a Clerk of the Privy Council can claim with a straight face that ten calls and meetings with the attorney general, during which massive job loss, an angry PM and a lost election are threatened, don’t constitute interference, then what on earth would interference look like?
In the wake of Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, opposition leader Andrew Scheer called on Trudeau to resign from office: “Like many of you I listened carefully to the testimony of the former attorney general and like many of you I was sickened and appalled by her story of inappropriate and, frankly, bordering on illegal pressure brought to bear on her by the highest officials of Justin Trudeau’s government, all to let a Liberal-connected corporation off the hook on serious corruption charges.”
But just this morning Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland went on CBC and said: “I have 100 percent faith in the prime minister.” So it looks like the liberals are not going to call for Trudeau’s ouster and are instead going to stick with the claim that this political pressure campaign was not a political pressure campaign.
Here’s the clip of Scheer’s statement.