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The early reviews of Justin Trudeau’s threat to sue Andrew Scheer for his comments on the SNC-Lavalin affair have not been kind: an “unfathomably stupid move … absolutely bonkers … the most ill-advised defamation suit since Oscar Wilde sued the Marquess of Queensbury.”
But hold on. Maybe that’s what he wants people to think. Take a step back, put this latest move in the context of the government’s previous attempts to contain the scandal, and a pattern emerges: a series of similarly baffling moves, each one of which might easily be dismissed as pea-brained, imbecilic, even suicidal, but which when taken together add up to a subtly brilliant play for the sympathy vote.
Wait, hear me out. Look, I’ll be the first to admit, when the prime minister emerged, the day after the story broke, to issue that lawyerly “I did not direct” the former attorney general to intervene in the prosecution — and then repeated it, three times — I thought: possibly he is not getting the best advice.
When Liberal insiders started attacking the former attorney general, anonymously, in terms that appealed to crude sexual stereotypes, backfiring so badly the prime minister was forced to denounce his own party’s handiwork, even I was fooled. It looked so real — like a simple, ordinary galactic-level public relations fiasco.
"To imagine this was all just spontaneous witlessness strains credulity. At some point, you have to figure there’s a plan."
But by the time the prime minister publicly dared the former attorney general to resign — “her presence in cabinet speaks for itself” — I started to sense something was up. Another blunder, even sillier than the others? What were the odds?
And so it continued: The resignation of his principal secretary that no one had demanded, offered on the grounds that he had done nothing wrong? The Soviet-era satire at the Commons justice committee, which shut down its pseudo-inquiry just as it threatened to get somewhere?
That fantastically weird performance by the clerk of the privy council, opening with a lengthy tirade about online trolls and peppering the rest with comments that would seem overly partisan if they came from a backbencher introducing the PM at a Liberal fundraiser? Could they have done a better job of advertising “we’ve got something to hide” if they had bought a spot on the Super Bowl?
To imagine this was all just spontaneous witlessness strains credulity. At some point, you have to figure there’s a plan.
I think you can see where this is going. As things stand the story risks becoming “prime minister harasses Indigenous woman to halt fraud prosecution of corrupt Liberal-friendly megacorporation, only to fire her when she refuses — then kicks her out of the party for objecting.” A lot of people might get the idea that you’re the bad guy.
How do you get them on your side? How do you, as the pros say, game-change the narrative? By approaching the scandal with such pitiable cack-handedness, such heart-rending incompetence, that you become the victim, and Wilson-Raybould the bully. Who doesn’t want to root for the underdog?
Still, as of last week the transition was incomplete. Once again, the story was in danger of dying. What could get it back on the front pages?
A lesser talent might have devised the stratagem of threatening your political opponent with a libel suit. But it takes a kind of genius to sue someone for accusing you of something you have admitted doing.
The idea of politicians suing each other for practising their trade — slandering each other — will admittedly strike many as absurd, rather like hockey players charging each other with assault. Stephen Harper looked like a fool when he tried it. But by this point the inanity of merely repeating his mistake would have been priced in. For the gambit to pay off, the Trudeau team would have to exceed previous expectations of ineptitude.
Never let it be said that they were not down to the challenge. So, to Scheer’s charge that “Justin Trudeau led a campaign to politically interfere with SNC-Lavalin’s criminal prosecution,” the prime minister’s reply (I am quoting here from his lawyer’s letter) is that “there is no evidence that suggests there has been any actual interference” in the prosecution. Advantage Team Trudeau: Unless the campaign succeeded, it never happened.
Scheer’s charge that Wilson-Raybould “repeatedly told the prime minister and his top officials that their actions were ‘entirely inappropriate’ and amounted to ‘political interference’,” implying, as the lawyer’s letter reframes it, that he “falsely pretended to be unaware of her position,” is similarly rejected as “entirely false” — as is the charge that the prime minister “told the public that no one had raised concerns when he knew as a fact that (she) had raised concerns with him.”
I want to be fair here. The letter was sent March 31. How was the prime minister’s lawyer to know the prime minister would acknowledge in Parliament the following week that Wilson-Raybould had warned him against interfering in her role as attorney general, as early as their Sept. 17 meeting? Though he surely ought to have known the PM had earlier acknowledged asking her to reverse her decision not to intervene in the prosecution in the course of the same meeting. (“I was preoccupied by the number of jobs on this in Quebec and across the country. This was something I was clear on.”)
That was at his March 7 press conference, hyped in advance by his own people as one in which he would issue an apology, if only of the “mistakes were made” variety. The press conference that ended with a reporter asking “just to clarify, are you apologizing for anything today?” Chess, people. Five-dimensional chess.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019