photo of Justin Trudeau by Chris Schwarz, courtesy the Government of Alberta
To believe Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s claim that there was no attempt to exert improper pressure on Jody Wilson-Raybould in the closing months of 2018, you have to also believe that her reassignment from attorney general to minister of veterans affairs in January 2019 was not an act of retaliation.
And if you believe that, you probably believe former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s claims that he did not know anything about “Bridgegate” when it was happening.
For those unfamiliar with Bridgegate, the scandal centered on lane closures in Fort Lee, New Jersey, which resulted in four days of chaos for travelers on either side of the George Washington Bridge into New York City. Christie’s aides initially claimed the closures were due to a “traffic study” before text messages and other contrary evidence surfaced; Christie maintained he had no idea what his aides were up to. None of these lies were particularly plausible, especially in light of the fact that Fort Lee’s mayor had previously declined to endorse Christie’s then-ongoing re-election bid. A jury later found two of the Christie loyalists, Bill Baroni and Bridget Anne Kelly, guilty of conspiracy, fraud and civil rights violations. In 2017, Bergen County prosecutors announced they would not charge Christie, but by that time his credibility – and his political career – were already in tatters.
If Trudeau paid attention to Bridgegate back in 2013, he drew all the wrong lessons from it. Or at least so the current scandal in Ottawa would suggest.
The SNC-Lavalin affair, as many Canadian outlets are calling it, centers on the purported interference from government officials in an ongoing criminal case against the prominent Quebec-based construction company. Wilson-Raybould testified to such interference under oath before the country’s Justice Committee and described it as “a consistent and sustained effort by many people within the government.” As attorney general, Wilson-Raybould should have had full prosecutorial independence, but she said that senior members of Trudeau’s staff made it clear that she should intervene in the criminal proceedings against SNC-Lavalin.
SNC-Lavalin faces charges of fraud and corruption related to payments made to Libyan officials during Moammar Gadhafi’s regime. The company had hoped to settle through a deferred prosecution agreement, an arrangement similar to a plea bargain, which would have involved a fine and mandatory compliance measures but would have left the firm able to bid for future government contracts. Prosecutors resisted the company’s multiyear lobbying effort to this effect and, in September, Canada’s public prosecutor told the company there was no prospect of an out-of-court settlement. The attorney general has the power to overturn this decision, but Wilson-Raybould chose not to. She later testified that Trudeau himself subsequently asked her to “find a solution” in order to secure a deferred prosecution agreement for SNC-Lavalin, citing the potential loss of thousands of jobs if the case went to trial. Wilson-Raybould characterized the pressure from Trudeau and other government officials as “incredibly inappropriate,” though not illegal.
The prime minister has challenged Wilson-Raybould’s account and insisted no improper interference took place. He apologized for an “erosion of trust” between his team and the former attorney general, but continued to hold firm to his argument that there was no inappropriate pressure. However, Wilson-Raybould’s reassignment in January and her subsequent resignation from the cabinet are two powerful counterarguments to that claim. Shortly after, another cabinet member and one of Trudeau’s senior advisers also stepped down. Now the Justice Committee and Canada’s federal ethics commissioner are both looking into the administration’s actions related to the case, though the ethics commissioner has no power to administer fines or punishment.
Still, the scandal has continued to escalate in the weeks following Wilson-Raybould’s testimony. The prime minister’s approval ratings have been slipping since he was elected, but until recently he was still expected to have a relatively easy path to re-election; the SNC-Lavalin affair threatens to send his re-election hopes crashing all the way to the ground. Andrew Scheer, who leads Canada’s Conservative party, has called for Trudeau’s resignation, saying that “he has lost the moral authority to govern.”
Not only do I think Christie and Trudeau’s respective credibility – or lack thereof – is similar, I think the ultimate results of these two scandals will be comparable. I wrote in January 2014 that Christie’s stubborn denials of responsibility for the Fort Lee mess had left him damaged goods and doomed his hopes of running for president in 2016. He ran anyway and managed to acquire only 57,000 votes in the early primaries before dropping out. Christie was last seen lounging on a beach chair during a statewide government shutdown in 2017. Give the guy credit: He may have flopped as a national candidate, but he had a better-than-average run as an internet meme.
Trudeau hasn’t been seen in a beach chair recently. This is the saving grace of working in Canada in the winter. As for whether his political future is any brighter than the ex-governor’s, we will know later this year when Canadians go to the polls. That is, assuming Trudeau’s Liberal party doesn’t dump him as parliamentary leader before then.
My guess is that by next winter, I’ll stand a decent chance of finding Trudeau where a lot of his fellow Canadians hang out that time of year – on the beaches near my home in Florida. Who knows? Trudeau might achieve meme status yet.