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Canada SNC-Lavalin mess casts Trudeau’s inner circle in a different light

When Justin Trudeau said on Friday that he would not have moved Jody Wilson-Raybould away from her job as justice minister if Scott Brison had not retired from cabinet, he was roundly mocked for his latest attempt at spin to make the SNC-Lavalin mess go away.

In fact, he was likely telling the truth. But the fact that Mr. Trudeau seized on the need to replace one minister as an opportunity to demote another underscores why some Liberals have been noticeably unenthusiastic about coming to the defence of the Prime Minister and his top officials – some MPs even seeming to side with Ms. Wilson-Raybould – amid this scandal.

There is a lot that partisans in this country will put up with when in government, in terms of deferring to central control by mouthing talking points and keeping disagreements to themselves.

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But if a Prime Minister’s Office is going to assert itself as supreme to cabinet and caucus, as Mr. Trudeau’s has, the PMO’s end of the bargain is to maintain cool-headed competence, continually demonstrate adaptability to challenges as they arise, play the long game with an eye toward the next election.

Just 10 days ago, Mr. Trudeau’s shop didn’t appear to be failing that test. There were Liberals who would grouse that Mr. Trudeau’s top officials, especially his principal secretary, Gerald Butts, and to a somewhat lesser extent his chief-of-staff, Katie Telford, were overweening. For the most part, there was also admiration for their skills in building and maintaining the brand of the most successful Liberal politician in a generation.

Pretty much from the moment that The Globe and Mail reported this month that Ms. Wilson-Raybould’s ouster from Justice had followed resistance to PMO pressure to cut SNC a deal on corruption charges, Mr. Trudeau’s inner circle has been cast in a different light. Now, it looks impetuous and short-sighted.

Start with how avoidable the scale of controversy was.

Mr. Trudeau’s officials made clear at the time of last month’s cabinet shuffle that it was only happening because of Mr. Brison’s unexpected exit. In other words, they could have lived with Ms. Wilson-Raybould at Justice through to the fall election.

Had they stuck with that plan by keeping the shuffle as small as possible, SNC would not have blown up as it has. The alleged pressure on Ms. Wilson-Raybould for a deferred prosecution of the engineering giant wouldn’t have been a huge story if she had successfully resisted and paid no price. Instead, they made the shuffle just wide enough to move her, be it solely because of disagreement over SNC or because they generally didn’t like her style. Amid this impromptu cleverness, there was apparently little consideration of what it would look like if the SNC story came out.

Then when it did come out, Mr. Trudeau began putting on a clinic of how not to conduct crisis communications, by frantically hopping from one message to another.

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You can pick your example of when an iteration of his spin made things worse. There was his initial, robotic repetition that he had not directed Ms. Wilson-Raybould to defer SNC’s prosecution. (His office was accused of putting pressure on her, not directing her.) There was his suggestion that her continued presence in cabinet, at Veterans Affairs, was evidence there was no great quarrel. (The possibility she would yet resign, as she did, apparently did not occur to anyone.) There was his expression of disappointment after she resigned, which came off condescending and, alongside anonymous Liberal complaints that she was “difficult," fuelled charges of sexism.

It’s around this point that many PMs would decide it was time for a shakeup of senior staff, through replacements or at least top-level additions. For even the most talented aides, it gets harder to maintain perspective on how things look to the outside world the longer they’re on the inside. (It doesn’t help when they’re part of the story, as Mr. Butts is because of his meetings with SNC-Lavalin.)

It’s hard to imagine Mr. Trudeau going that route, because his relationship with his top aides is so unusual – Mr. Butts a best friend without whom he might not be in politics, Ms. Telford having joined them to form a seemingly indivisible trio. And that sense of camaraderie, shared to some extent with other PMO staff who have the trio’s trust, might help explain why they’re running so hot. It’s probably hard to play it cool, take a step back and map out strategy that will last more than a day, when collectively feeling personally hurt.

By fall, Liberals may be glad Mr. Trudeau hasn’t treated his team as disposably as most prime ministers. Mr. Butts understands Mr. Trudeau’s political persona in a way no other adviser could; Ms. Telford proved an excellent campaign director in the previous election and will soon resume that role. It’s not clear what sort of prime minister Mr. Trudeau would be without them, nor that anyone else would give him a better chance of re-election.

If the party wins another majority government, the PMO will have held up its end of the bargain, after all. But more so than at any point since Mr. Trudeau took office, other Liberals seem to be wondering how well this deal is working out for them.

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