Since taking office in 2015, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has become a progressive icon due to his Liberal Party's championing of climate change action and refugee rights, as well as Trudeau's youthful looks and often charming demeanor.
Now Trudeau is embroiled in an escalating scandal that has triggered the resignations of his own principal secretary, a kind of senior political adviser, as well as two top Cabinet members, the second one stepping down on Monday.
The first Cabinet officer was former Attorney General Jody Wilson-Raybould, who has accused Trudeau of secretly attempting to direct her handling of a high-level criminal prosecution.
"I experienced a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government to seek to politically interfere in the exercise of prosecutorial discretion," Wilson-Raybould told a parliamentary committee on Feb. 27.
At issue is the prosecution of a Montreal-based engineering firm called SNC Lavalin, which has more than 50,000 employees worldwide. The company faces criminal charges that it engaged in a long-term bribery and corruption scheme in Libya that involved funneling tens of millions of dollars to the family of former dictator Moammar Gadhafi.
If found guilty, the company could be banned from bidding on federal contracts in Canada. Last month, the Globe & Mail published an investigative report claiming Trudeau intervened in the matter, an account Wilson-Raybould corroborated. In her testimony, she said members of Trudeau's team pressured her repeatedly over a period of months in 2018 to reach a negotiated settlement with SNC Lavalin.
Their goal, she said, was to protect jobs while also bolstering the Liberal Party's political standing in the province of Quebec ahead of next October's general election.
On Monday, a second minister, Jane Philpott, stepped down from her post as Canada's Treasury Board president. "It is a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law that our attorney-general should not be subjected to political pressure or interference regarding the exercise of her prosecutorial discretion in criminal cases," Philpott wrote in a letter to Trudeau.
The leader of Canada's Conservative opposition, Andrew Scheer, has been a frequent critic of Trudeau. Scheer is demanding a criminal probe of Trudeau's actions by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and has urged the prime minister to resign. "Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this country now that Canadians know what he has done," Scheer told reporters.
Trudeau has defended his government's actions. During a news conference Monday, he said his staff advocated for the interests of an important Canadian jobs provider, while also respecting the rule of law. "Canadians expect us to do those two things at the same time and that's what we will always do," Trudeau said.
But with national elections scheduled for the fall, the scandal shows no sign of abating. This week, Canada's most influential news magazine, Maclean's, published an article about the affair titled "Justin Trudeau, Imposter." The prime minister's former close confidante and political adviser, Gerry Butts, is scheduled to testify about his role in the Lavalin matter before a parliament committee on Wednesday.
"There is quite a bit of damage to Trudeau's brand," said Daniel Béland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal. "He said he would change politics, and in the end he's just a politician like any other."
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Canada's Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is taking an unexpected political beating. Yesterday, a second member of his cabinet abruptly resigned. The first to quit was Trudeau's former attorney general. She is now accusing him of meddling in a criminal prosecution. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann is in Ottawa, Canada's capital, where he is watching all of this unfold and reporting on it. Hi, Brian.
BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel.
MARTIN: So up until now, Justin Trudeau had a pretty sterling reputation, right? And then this scandal...
MARTIN: ...Happened so quickly. What happened exactly?
MANN: Yeah. This has really been moving quick. Last month, the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper suddenly ran a big expose claiming Trudeau intervened in a high-level criminal probe. This involved a Canadian company called SNC-Lavalin. That's a big company that's been accused of bribery and corruption. According to the newspaper's story, Trudeau secretly pressured Canada's then attorney general, a woman named Jody Wilson-Raybould, trying to convince her to go easy on Lavalin. And then last week, in kind of a bombshell moment, Wilson-Raybould herself went public. She told Parliament the newspaper account was true. Here she is.
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JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD: 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.
MANN: And I should say that Wilson-Raybould has this really sterling reputation here, so this has been painful for Trudeau. She pointed the finger right at him, saying he was the guy directing all this secret pressure as a way to shore up his party's political support.
MARTIN: I mean, why? Can you explain that? I mean, does Trudeau have a relationship with this company?
MANN: Lavalin operates from their headquarters in Montreal, which is Justin Trudeau's core base of support. And he has argued that this is an important company for jobs in Canada. She says that was the argument he was making behind the scenes - go soft on this company, or else they'll leave Canada.
MARTIN: So now a second member of his cabinet has resigned, and that just happened yesterday.
MANN: Yeah, this is escalating. Canada's Treasury board president, a woman named Jane Philpott, wrote a public letter arguing Trudeau had broken what she called a fundamental doctrine of the rule of law by pressuring his attorney general. And I should say that Andrew Scheer, head of Canada's opposition Conservative Party, no fan of Trudeau, has now called for the prime minister to resign. Scheer is calling for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to open a new criminal probe of Trudeau's inner circle.
MARTIN: Wow. I mean, is he speaking publicly about this and the calls for him to quit?
MANN: He has been talking. His message has kind of flipped and flopped. It's been a tough couple of weeks for him. He argues, basically, that it was important and legitimate for him to advocate on behalf of this Canadian company and the jobs it provides. But he says he did it in ways that were proper. Here he is speaking with reporters just yesterday.
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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: We will do that, however, in a way that respects our institutions, respects the independence of our judiciary. Canadians expect us to do those two things at the same time. And that's what we will always do.
MARTIN: But now it really is a matter of whether or not he keeps his job, right? I mean, national elections are scheduled for the fall. Can he survive this?
MANN: So the Conservative Party was already coming on strong when all this began to blow up. And now I'm hearing from all sides, including from liberals here, that Trudeau's brand is seriously damaged. There's this very influential Canadian newsmagazine here called Maclean's. They ran an article about the scandal this week, titled "Justin Trudeau, Imposter." And another of Trudeau's former close advisors is scheduled to testify before Parliament tomorrow. So this is going to continue. It's a very dangerous moment for this politician. He seemed bulletproof just a few weeks ago.
MARTIN: Brian Mann with North Country Public Radio from Ottawa. Thanks, Brian.
MANN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.