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Are these the ’answers’ of a Prime Minister who’s done nothing wrong?

Andrew MacDougall: Sloppy misdirection, anonymous hit jobs. The response to the Lavalin affair shows a PMO that’s scrambling and caught.  
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaking at a transit funding announcement at the Winnipeg Transit bus barn, Tuesday, February 12, 2019. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Trevor Hagan

Andrew MacDougall is a London-based columnist, commentator and consultant at Trafalgar Strategy. He was formerly director of communications to Stephen Harper.

When ace reporter Bob Fife rings you at 9:30 in the morning to get a comment for an exclusive in the next day’s paper it’s time to cancel your plans. Believe me, I know from experience. It means something big— something painful—is in the offing.

And while I’m not privy to the PMO discussion following Fife’s Feb. 6 call, I can say the carefully-crafted response which appeared in the Globe and Mail’s exclusive the next morning did nothing to kill the story. Au contraire, it has produced a series of shifting explanations over subsequent days for something Trudeau’s office insists never even happened.

So, why hasn’t the PMO managed to kill the story? Given the building is stacked with political ninjas the temptation is to say they haven’t succeeded for a good reason: what Fife, Steven Chase, and Sean Fine have reported is true.

How can I make that claim? How about we put ourselves in the Trudeau PMO’s shoes to review all the ways the office has been giving credence to the SNC-Lavalin story. Hint: it’s not what they say, it’s what they’re not saying.

On Feb. 6, the allegation is made that your office “pressed” Jody Wilson-Raybould to “abandon” the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. This being the same SNC-Lavalin which, as you’ll know, has littered the public lobbying registry with notices of meetings with your senior staff to discuss having the law changed in such a way that could benefit it in dealing with its current legal woes.

READ MORE: Justin Trudeau’s credibility gap on SNC-Lavalin

You’ll also know that your government subsequently buried a legal remedy into the most recent budget bill to do SNC (and others, in theory) a solid. And you’ll know that SNC barged straight back into your office after the independent Director of the Public Prosecution Service subsequently ruled out using that new legal remedy to SNC’s potential advantage (again, see: registry, lobbying).

What’s more, as a sharp PMO-type, you’ll know that Wilson-Raybould chose to append a very unusual letter to her surprise departure from the Department of Justice during the recent cabinet shuffle, a letter that went out of its way to state that it is a “pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political influence and uphold the highest levels of public confidence”. Forget the letter’s long lauding of her record on justice policy. Why would the outgoing attorney general even think to mention the bit about the “perception of political influence”?

Anyway, knowing all of that unhelpful context, and knowing that it’s a very serious accusation being levelled by Fife et al.—indeed, one that, if proven, could be criminal—you would have every interest in being as definitive as possible in your response. If nothing fitting the Globe’s description or characterization happened between PMO and Wilson-Raybould you would get on the phone with Fife tout de suite and put as many facts as you could into a background chat with him to counter his narrative and, if he isn’t ultimately convinced, then go on the record to shout your clear denial from the rooftops. Something like: “The accusation is categorically false. At no point did the Prime Minister of his office in any way, shape, or form direct or pressure the attorney general on the question of SNC-Lavalin.”

But you didn’t do that.

There is absolutely no sign of serious background engagement by you or your office in the original Globe story. Nor do there appear to be any invitations extended to talk to “Jody” to set things straight, which you would have gladly offered to do to clear up something that didn’t happen.

No, instead, you give the public a brief piece of legalese: “The Prime Minister’s Office did not direct the attorney general to draw any conclusions on this matter.” The statement sounds definitive (“did not direct”) but isn’t, as it evades the actual allegation (“pressed”), which is still problematic. Your answer leaves the impression that something did happen between the two parties.

Fine. Even the best political office can fluff the initial response. Sometimes it’s left to the Prime Minister to kill a story stone dead. And as luck would have it, Trudeau was in front of the press on the day the story broke.

But Trudeau didn’t kill the story stone dead. He didn’t even try.

“The allegations reported in the story are false,” Trudeau told reporters, delivering what appeared to be a well-drilled line. “At no time did I or my office direct the current or previous attorney general to make any particular decision in this matter.” Trudeau’s line sure sounds better, given the use of the word “false”, but it’s not actually an improvement, given that what Trudeau describes as “false” isn’t what was alleged in the first place. It’s misdirection, i.e. a big red flag to every reporter able to draw breath.

And, right on cue, every reporter listening to Trudeau followed up with the obvious question as to whether his office “pressed” or “pressured” Wilson-Raybould. And instead of being clear and ruling out pressure of any kind, Trudeau reverted to his narrow script: “At no time did we [i.e. himself and the PMO] direct the attorney-general, current or previous”.

This, friends, is the “tell”. Trudeau was invited to bat down the allegation—in the flesh, for all to see—and he preferred to stick with his mischaracterization of the allegation. And he did that because he knew that someone credible was out there, someone with inside knowledge, and they were telling a different story (or else the Globe wouldn’t have run the story).

In other words, characterizing the interaction between Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould in a way that wasn’t truthful, i.e. saying there was no pressure, would have been met with a counterpunch from the mystery counterparty (and, by now, everyone in the PMO will be thinking it’s Wilson-Raybould). Trudeau had to duck and hope that his misdirection would be good enough.

It wasn’t, as the front page of every newspaper and lead item on every broadcast will have confirmed to the PMO.

At this point, the PMO is choked. The press isn’t buying what they have to sell, because what they have to sell doesn’t address the issue. For her part, Wilson-Raybould isn’t commenting at all, which isn’t helpful if nothing happened because one word of denial from her kills the story. That she is remaining silent speaks volumes, and the press knows it.

If you’re the PMO, this is the point in a scandal when you root around the sofa cushions in the hopes of finding a fact you haven’t yet deployed to your favour. It’s when you look for a piece of news that you can put out to change the channel.

And when all you find is lint and spare change and nothing better to watch, you begin to contemplate switching to the dark arts. However, before you go there, you decide to trot out the big guns—the vaunted “senior government officials” (Ottawa code for “PMO”)—in an attempt to fill in as much detail as you can about the interactions between PMO and Justice without contradicting your public line that no direction was given.

READ MORE: Nine subtle (and not-so) signals in Jody Wilson-Raybould’s resignation letter

This leads to the Feb. 8 exclusive in the Globe and Mail, which confirmed that discussions were held with Wilson-Raybould about the government’s options with respect to SNC-Lavalin. The senior government officials go as far as to say there was “vigorous debate” about SNC-Lavalin, but this wasn’t to be misconstrued as “pressure” or direction. A “robust discussion” is not “pressure” they pleaded. Given Wilson-Raybould’s continuing silence, it’s not a stretch to say this is the PMO relating its side of events in the hope that one woman’s “pressure” can be portrayed as another man’s “robust discussion but no direction now can we please move on”.

But this intervention doesn’t kill the story either, because now it’s clear there was a tetchy debate about SNC Lavalin, something that could easily be felt as pressure by the party on the other end of the conversation. Pressure that could, under the law, be illegal, depending on its exact shape and form.

In other words, the story is now a five-alarm fire going into the weekend, when the Sunday political chat shows are going to be picking it apart in Zapruder-like detail. Remember those dark arts you were thinking about deploying? Well, it’s time for the dirty deed to get done.

On Feb. 9 Canada wakes up to a story in the Canadian Press relaying through unnamed “insiders” how Wilson-Raybould was shuffled from Justice to Veterans because she had become a “thorn in the side of the cabinet”, “difficult to get along with”, and had “always sort of been in it for herself”, i.e. “everything” was very “Jody-centric”. As far as character assassinations go it was fairly comprehensive, albeit about a month late, given that none of it was whispered on or off-the-record at the time of Wilson-Raybould’s move out of the Justice portfolio.

The ways these muggings usually go—and I had to orchestrate a few in my day—is you ring up an amenable reporter and tell them that if you talk to so-and-so they’ll say such-and-such and hot damn, you’ll have one hell of a story. The one stipulation you make is that no comment from your office must appear in the story, so as not to leave any fingerprints. Well non-deniable ones, anyway.

But the anonymous hit job on Wilson-Raybould goes sideways and stirs the pot up even more. As literally every non-PMO dwelling observer with no dog in the hunt could have anticipated and pointed out, it’s not very on-brand for a feminist, Indigenous relationship-healing prime minister to set his attack dogs on the literal poster child for his values movement. To make matters worse, the Ethics Commissioner has now decided to get involved and opposition MPs on the Justice Committee are wanting to have a look into everything too.

Again, a government confident it had done nothing wrong would welcome MPs getting to the bottom of things because—with the whole Huawei extradition weighing on it already—political interference and the applicability of the rule of law in Canada is suddenly a very relevant topic. A PMO with nothing to hide on such an important question wouldn’t hide.

But the Liberals on the Justice Committee don’t pledge to get to the bottom of it. They don’t support a motion inviting the very people who would know what happened here—i.e. the main players in the PMO, the ones now whispering to newspapers—to come to committee. Instead, they invite Wilson-Raybould’s replacement at Justice, David Lametti, i.e. the guy who’s just been on the Sunday chat shows saying that his boss Trudeau says nothing happened so everything must be tickety-boo. You get three guesses at who asked for that outcome, and the first two don’t count.

But again—no one out there is buying it. Not the press, and not even all Liberal MPs. New Brunswick Liberal MP Wayne Long is calling for a full investigation, adding yet another voice to the story. Another voice you can’t manage.

By this point in the tire fire, there is little a PMO can do but lean into the silence of their adversary and hope they never speak. Their silence even tempts you to take liberties with their side of the conversation in the hopes of throttling the story.

And so Trudeau flips his previous explanation on its head, saying that if Wilson-Raybould felt improper pressure was being applied she should have complained to him about it, and that he was “disappointed” in her for not calling it to his attention. The fact that she didn’t, he says, suggests nothing at all happened. And while reversing the onus is a legal concept, observers could be forgiven for thinking the Prime Minister’s latest explanation isn’t genuine, what with his refusal to waive Wilson-Raybould’s privilege on the matter. Again, if nothing bad has happened, why not let her speak? To ask the question is to answer it.

But let’s take Trudeau at his word, as some legal commentators and Liberal proxies did. Why didn’t she resign? Other than trying to be a team player, that is? But what, exactly, was Wilson-Raybould supposed to do about it? If the PMO was up in her grill about SNC-Lavalin getting a break was she seriously supposed to assume it was doing it without Trudeau’s knowledge, to say nothing of his direction? The very same Trudeau who hasn’t changed his palace guard? Ever? The same Trudeau who says loudly that Gerry Butts and Katie Telford are he and he are they?

The incompatibility of the multiple explanations adds up, such is the myopia of an office in scandal. Of course, Wilson-Raybould’s silence in the face of this possible criminality didn’t prompt Trudeau to sack her, critics note, poking a giant hole in the new story. No, Trudeau only slotted her into Veterans Affairs, where she still enjoyed his full confidence, he says, despite the mess this whole situation has created. It’s the kind of exquisite bullshit only clever bullshitters up to their necks in bullshit can’t see.

Indeed, this is the point in the scandal where the PMO loses sight of all of the incompatible twists and turns in the saga and their impact on the wider world. They just need a line—some line, any line—to get them through the day.

The resulting loss of touch with the mood and reading of the outside world includes their own team in Parliament. A caucus that feels neglected at the best of times is now watching you strafe a former colleague both on and off-the-record. They don’t care that you’re trying to keep one step ahead of the flame, only that you’ve disposed of one of them to further your immediate needs. Spoiler: it doesn’t make them happy.

Especially when Wilson-Raybould—no doubt seething at her portrayal, as hinted at by her father in media interviews—resigns and then lawyers up, with a former Supreme Court Justice, on the way out. Her resignation statement doesn’t mention Trudeau. Despite your efforts working caucus to keep everything on lockdown, social media starts to light up with posts from colleagues supporting their ousted friend.

Now facing an existential crisis, every favour gets called in by PMO. Every bit of leverage on caucus gets used. Ministers and MPs are briefed to keep schtum and let the centre muddle through. Don’t worry what everybody is saying, they’ll say, the only thing that will keep this story going is infighting. So shut up and stick together. Except, that is, for the few loyal soldiers who get tooled up for duty on the cable news shows.

The only thing left for Justin Trudeau to do now is hope that everyone sticks together. He knows Wilson-Raybould will one day speak, he just hopes that day isn’t coming anytime soon.

If Wilson-Raybould comes out and confirms the side of the story the PMO has been trying so hard to obscure it will damage the Trudeau government in dire ways.

It will make that Feb. 6 phone call from Bob Fife feel like a picnic.