While Americans were transfixed on Wednesday with the salacious, but not legally damning, testimony of Michael Cohen before Congress, a bombshell went off in the Canadian Parliament. Former Canadian Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould testified before the House Justice Committee alleging that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and others in his administration pressured her in “inappropriate” ways to reach a settlement with an engineering company that has been charged with crimes.
The company, SNC-Lavalin, is facing charges that it sent bribes to Libya, then under the rule of Gadhafi, in defiance of Canadian law. If found guilty, the Quebec-based company will face severe sanctions, including a ban on working with the Canadian government. This would be a severe economic blow, especially in Trudeau’s home province of Quebec.
According to Wilson-Raybould’s testimony, she faced “consistent and sustained,” efforts by the Trudeau administration, as well as “veiled threats,” in an attempt to influence her decision regarding Lavalin. Under Canadian law, this type of attempt at political influence is at best inappropriate, and at worst illegal.
Unlike the slow moving investigation into Trump, the Trudeau scandal has unfurled remarkably quickly. On February 7, the Globe and Mail ran a story citing anonymous sources that suggested inappropriate political meddling had occurred. In her testimony yesterday, Wilson-Raybould discussed meetings with Trudeau and others from late last year. Trudeau says he disagrees with her assessment that the meetings were not appropriate.
In January, Wilson-Raybould was relieved of her duties as attorney general and given a lesser cabinet position. Then this month, she suddenly stepped down from the cabinet entirely. Also stepping down was Gerald Butts, a long time Trudeau political adviser heavily involved with Lavalin situation.
Yesterday’s testimony from one of his former cabinet ministers and a member of his own party has flung the Trudeau administration into a full-fledged crisis. With a general election looming in October, Opposition Leader Andrew Scheer said that Trudeau has “lost the moral authority to lead,” and should resign.
The crux of the case––and perhaps the key to Trudeau’s future––is whether the discussions with Wilson-Raybould were simply a good faith effort to make her aware of the economic and political implications of the Lavalin case, or a more nefarious effort to put a thumb on the scale of justice.
For her part, the former attorney general said that the pressure was maintained even after she had made clear that she had made a decision not to cut a deal with Lavalin. In addition, some observers view her demotion in January as a punishment for having defied the administration’s wishes.
With an election this year, members of the Liberal Party will have to decide if Trudeau can weather these harsh allegations and successfully lead them to victory. For now, Trudeau insists he did nothing wrong and that he will be exonerated by the ethics committee. But even in the best-case scenario for him, in which his administration’s pressure on the justice ministry was legal and ethical, it still represents a broad overreach into what is supposed to be an independent agency.
Justin Trudeau is often viewed in both Canada and The United States as a kind of anti-Trump. Young, nice looking, liberal, the son of a former prime minister, and sufficiently woke in all the right ways, he has a hero status for some. It is remarkable that all of a sudden it is Trudeau, not Trump, who may be taken down by corruption.
It’s a good reminder that Donald Trump didn’t invent corruption or the breaking of political norms––such things predate him by a few centuries. That a “nice guy,” like Trudeau engaged in corruption will surprise many, but perhaps it shouldn’t. Abuse of government power has never been limited to the crude.
It will be an astounding irony if just as the Mueller probe returns a report with no smoking gun, Trump’s adversary in Canada is engulfed in a damaging scandal. It will be another example of something that “wasn’t supposed to go that way.” But here we are. Over two years after investigations into Trump began there has still been no finding of wrongdoing by him. Just three weeks into the Lavalin scandal, Trudeau has been badly damaged.
Whether Trudeau’s leadership survives this scandal or not, it is yet another reminder that things are not always what they seem.
This article has been updated to reflect that Lavalin is an engineering company, not an energy company.