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Canada’s Justin Trudeau is unapologetic as political dispute roils his government

Canada’s Justin Trudeau is unapologetic as political dispute roils his government
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks to the media in Ottawa, Ontario, on Thursday. A former justice minister has accused him of applying inappropriate pressure in a corruption prosecution. (Lars Hagberg / AFP/Getty Images)

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Thursday that an “erosion of trust” and “lack of communication” with his former justice minister led her to resign and accuse him of applying inappropriate pressure in a corruption prosecution — a dispute that has shaken his government.

But the prime minister made no apologies as he discussed the issue at a nationally televised news conference.

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Former Justice Minister and Atty. Gen. Jody Wilson-Raybould told a parliamentary committee last week that Trudeau and senior officials tried to pressure her into instructing prosecutors to avoid criminal prosecution of Montreal-based engineering giant SNC-Lavalin and instead require it to pay fines over allegations of bribery in Libya.

The case has led to the resignations of two high-profile Cabinet ministers and Trudeau’s top aide, as well as opposition calls for him to step down.

Trudeau and his aides deny doing anything wrong, saying they were only pointing out that prosecution could endanger thousands of people’s jobs because a conviction would make the company ineligible for government contracts for a decade. The company is a major employer in Quebec, with about 3,400 employees in the province, 9,000 employees in Canada and more than 50,000 worldwide.

“In regards to standing up for jobs and defending the integrity of our rule of law, I continue to say there was no inappropriate pressure,” Trudeau said.

The prime minister said Wilson-Raybould told him Sept. 17 that she was declining to seek a remediation agreement, which would allow the company to pay a fine instead of facing criminal prosecution.

But Trudeau said he and other officials felt she was still open to arguments on the issue because such an agreement would be possible until the last moments of a trial.

“We considered that she was still open to hearing different arguments and different approaches on what her decision could be,” Trudeau said.

“What we see now is that she wasn’t prepared to change her mind.”

Trudeau said Wilson-Raybould did not come to him to express her concerns about inappropriate pressure and said he wishes she had. He said situations were “experienced differently, and I regret that.”

“I am obviously reflecting on lessons learned,” he said. “There are things we have to reflect on and understand and do better next time.”

Wilson-Raybould was demoted from her role as attorney general and named veterans affairs minister in January as part of a Cabinet shuffle. She resigned weeks later.

Wilson-Raybould has said she believes she was demoted for failure to give in to the pressure.

Trudeau’s former chief aide Gerald Butts, who resigned last month, denied that in testimony to a parliamentary committee Wednesday. He said other factors led to the shakeup, which involved several other Cabinet posts.

Trudeau said he tries to foster an environment where his lawmakers can come to him with concerns, but one of his Liberal Party colleagues, Celina Caesar-Chavannes, took issue with that, tweeting, “I did come to you recently. Twice. Remember your reactions?”

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Caesar-Chavannes, who is not running for reelection, did not elaborate and did not immediately return messages seeking comment. She has issued messages of support for Wilson-Raybould on Twitter.

Other Liberal lawmakers have rallied around Trudeau in an election year. His party has the majority of seats in Parliament, so his government cannot be brought down in a vote of no confidence unless his own party members vote against him.

Federal elections are being held in October, however, and at least one poll says the Liberals are now trailing the Conservatives by a small margin.

If Trudeau should lose another Cabinet minister before the election, his leadership could be called into question and already shaken Liberals could rebel. So far, other Liberal Cabinet ministers are rallying around him.

Andrew Scheer, leader of the opposition Conservative Party, has called on Trudeau to resign and is asking police to investigate. Canada’s ethics commissioner is investigating the issue, a probe that is expected to take months.

On Monday, Treasury Board President Jane Philpott, considered a star minister, said in a resignation letter that it was “untenable” for her to continue in the Cabinet because she lost confidence and could not defend the government.

“The evidence of efforts by politicians and/or officials to pressure the former Attorney General to intervene in the criminal case involving SNC-Lavalin, and the evidence as to the content of those efforts have raised serious concerns for me,” Philpott wrote.

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