Finance Minister Bill Morneau says his staff acted "absolutely appropriately" on the SNC-Lavalin file, denying any wrongdoing in presenting the economic case for helping the engineering company avoid a criminal trial.
Morneau defended the behaviour of officials including his chief of staff, Ben Chin, to reporters in Toronto Thursday, less than 24 hours after the former justice minister and attorney general, Jody Wilson-Raybould, gave damning testimony in front of the House of Commons justice committee accusing him of applying "extraordinary pressure" on her.
In the short press conference, Morneau responded unequivocally that neither he, nor his staff, did anything wrong.
Asked repeatedly whether he had directed his chief of staff Ben Chin to contact @Puglaas' staff with message that a deferral for SNC-Lavalin had to happen, @Bill_Morneau finally answered: "No, I did not."
"I want to be clear. I never raised this issue with Ms. Jody Wilson-Raybould," said Morneau, who also acknowledged that, as per her testimony, the former attorney general approached him about the issue on Sept. 19.
"She approached me (in the House of Commons) to tell me that my staff was approaching her staff, which I think is entirely appropriate," he said, adding that he could not recall more details about that interaction in the House.
In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould said she spoke with Morneau in the Commons, where “he again stressed the need to save jobs, and I told him that engagements from his office to mine on SNC had to stop – that they were inappropriate.”
Wilson-Raybould detailed two other meetings with Morneau's chief of staff Ben Chin in her testimony, noting that he had urged her office to "find a solution" to help save jobs in the context of the Quebec Oct. 1 general election.
"My staff, appropriately, would make her staff aware of the economic consequences of decisions, about the importance of thinking about jobs," Morneau said Thursday.
According to Wilson-Raybould's testimony, on Sept. 6, Chin emailed her chief of staff, Jessica Prince, asking to speak about SNC-Lavalin and "what we could do, if anything, to address this."
"He said to her, my chief, that if they don’t get a (deferred prosecution agreement), they will leave Montreal and it’s the Quebec election right now, so we can’t have that happen," Wilson-Raybould told the committee.
Asked repeatedly whether he had directed Ben Chin to contact Wilson-Raybould's staff with that message, Morneau finally answered: "No, I did not."
Morneau said he remains "in regular touch" with his staff. He reiterated that Chin "was acting entirely appropriately" in this matter.
“My role is and continues to be to think about how we protect Canadian jobs, how we make sure the economy is strong, so I will continue to do that," he said. "I think that’s critically important for us to understand in every decision we take as a government.”
He said he couldn’t speak to Wilson-Raybould's view that she was pressured in the matter, saying “she has her opinion.”
Morneau was in a cabinet meeting during Wilson-Raybould's testimony but has reviewed it since, he said, adding that she "is entitled to her opinion."
He emphasized his commitment to protecting the Canadian economy, and doing so "with respect to the law."
Trudeau rebuts Wilson-Raybould again; Scheer asks for RCMP investigation
Morneau's comments came hours after Trudeau told reporters, again, that Wilson-Raybould's continued membership in the Liberal caucus was under consideration.
Speaking to reporters after an event at the Canadian Space Agency in Quebec, Trudeau said he has "taken knowledge of her testimony and there are still reflections to have on next steps."
In her testimony, Wilson-Raybould did not specify details on why she resigned from Trudeau's cabinet last week, except to say that she received a call from the prime minister on Jan. 7 advising her that she was being shuffled into the veterans affairs portfolio.
Trudeau's cabinet agreed to waive Wilson-Raybould's solicitor-client privilege to speak about events that occurred while she was attorney general and justice minister, not the weeks since.
"I will not go into details of this call, or subsequent communications about the shuffle, but I will say that I stated I believed the reason was because of the SNC matter. They denied this to be the case," she testified, adding later that she left because she no longer had the confidence to sit around the cabinet table.
When asked about this Thursday, Trudeau deflected by saying, again, that "had [former treasury board president] Scott Brison not stepped down, Jody Wilson-Raybould would still be minister of justice and attorney general of Canada." He also repeated that both him and his office were appropriate in all their dealings with Wilson-Raybould and her office, and that he disagreed with her version of events.
On Thursday morning, Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland told CBC's Ottawa Morning that she is "clearly of the view that the prime minister would never apply improper pressure, that the prime minister has always been clear about the unique role of the attorney general, and would respect that."
"I believe that (Wilson-Raybould) spoke, as she said she wanted to do, her truth," Freeland said in the interview.
The Liberal leaders' comments come as Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer officially requested the RCMP open criminal investigations into whether there were attempts to obstruct justice and “provoke fear” in the attorney general — both offences under the Criminal Code.
In his letter to the RCMP, Scheer wrote the events described in Wilson-Raybould's testimony exhibited "a gross violation of the law," and urged them to "use all the resources at your disposal to fully and fairly investigate any potential criminal activity."
Following Wilson-Raybould's testimony. Trudeau's former principal secretary, Gerald Butts — who resigned over the controversy on Feb. 18 — has also written to the Commons justice committee chair, requesting to testify before them.
"I believe my evidence will be of assistance...," he wrote in the letter, adding that he needs to get legal advice "concerning my evidence and to produce relevant documents to the Committee."
I just made the following request of the Justice Committee Chair. pic.twitter.com/MUCJwnldui— Gerald Butts 🇨🇦 (@gmbutts) February 28, 2019
An emergency SNC-Lavalin debate in federal parliament has been set for 7 p.m. ET Thursday.
Trudeau was not in question period on Thursday, and would not typically attend on a Friday. If he does not decide to return to Ottawa from Montreal for the emergency debate, Trudeau may not face a direct question in Parliament about Wilson-Raybould's testimony and Scheer's call for an RCMP investigation until March 18.
Editor's note: This story has been updated several times, most recently at 3:33 p.m. Eastern Time on Feb. 28, 2019 to include Gerald Butts' letter to appear before the Commons justice committee.