Kicking Butts

I’ve had a few fleeting text message conversations with Gerry Butts, who resigned yesterday as Principal Secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Mostly we chatted about his aunt and political mentor, the late Sister Peggy Butts, a Liberal stalwart who was variously principal of Holy Angels High School, a poly sci prof at the University College of Cape Breton, and a member of the Canadian Senate.

Butts and Trudeau met on the McGill University debating team, where they formed a famously close personal and professional friendship. That Trudeau felt the need to throw him overboard, or at least let him jump, attests to the severity of the scandal over the PMO’s alleged attempt to limit prosecution of serial bribe-giver SNC Lavalin.

Notwithstanding the PM’s ham-handed response to the deepening scandal, I’m sorry to see Butts go. The government would be stronger with him at Trudeau’s side. I’m glad he took the unusual step of including this paragraph in his resignation statement:

Our kids and grandkids will judge us on one issue above all others. That issue is climate change. I hope the response to it becomes the collective, non-partisan, urgent effort that science clearly says is required. I hope that happens soon.

Butts’s statement also included what had been missing in the PMO’s defense: a full-throated denial, devoid of weasel words.

I categorically deny the accusation that I or anyone else in his office pressured Ms. Wilson-Raybould. We honoured the unique role of the Attorney General. At all times, I and those around me acted with integrity and a singular focus on the best interests of all Canadians.

Contrast that with this telling passage,¬†overlooked at the time, in Wilson-Raybould’s statement upon leaving the Attorney General’s post:

It is a pillar of our democracy that our system of justice be free from even the perception of political interference and uphold the highest levels of public confidence. As such, it has always been my view that the Attorney General of Canada must be non-partisan, more transparent in the principles that are the basis of decisions, and, in this respect, always willing to speak truth to power. This is how I served throughout my tenure in that role.

As Stephen Maher points out, since we will likely eventually learn more about what happened between Butts, Trudeau, and Wilson-Raybould,¬† “it seems wise to give [Butts’s] firm, straightforward denial some weight.”

Which makes it the more puzzling. If Butts and Trudeau truly did nothing wrong, why resign? Butts’s explanation, that the accusation of wrongdoing, “cannot and should not take one moment away from the vital work the Prime Minister and his office is doing for all Canadians,” is less than satisfying.

Throughout his now aborted term as Principal Secretary, Butts retained an active and colorful presence on Twitter, chiding adversaries and encouraging allies. In his resignation statement, he said, “My reputation is my responsibility and that is for me to defend.”

In the end, I suspect he thought Trudeau had to take some action dramatic enough to acknowledge the seriousness of the allegation, and he wanted to be free to defend his actions.

Obviously, there’s more to come.