SNC-Lavalin affair weighs down Trudeau government in polls

Welcome to The National Today newsletter, which takes a closer look at what’s happening around some of the day’s most notable stories. Sign up here and it will be delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

TODAY:

  • Today is the day that Jody Wilson-Raybould finally speaks about what transpired between her, the prime minister, and his senior-most staffers over the SNC-Lavalin affair.
  • A win for the U.S. at the summit with North Korea may not be a win for America’s allies in the region.
  • Michael Cohen’s testimony in Washington today is clearly top of mind for President Trump at his summit in Hanoi.
  • Missed The National last night? Watch it here.

D-Day for JWR

It’s fairly rare that politicians become well-known enough to be referred to only by their initials.

Like FDR, or PET, DSK, or just plain-old W.

But Jody Wilson-Raybould, the former federal justice minister and attorney general, may already have joined those ranks.

Today is the day that JWR finally speaks (out loud in public, at least) about what transpired between her, the prime minister, and his senior-most staffers over the SNC-Lavalin affair.

Former Liberal justice minister Jody Wilson-Raybould is seen walking to Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Tuesday. She will testify before the Commons justice committee on Wednesday afternoon. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

It has been just 20 days since the Globe and Mail published its anonymously sourced article suggesting that Wilson-Raybould felt she had been improperly pressured to intervene in the prosecution of the Quebec engineering and construction giant, and subsequently demoted to a lesser cabinet portfolio after she refused.

Over that period, Wilson-Raybould has spoken mostly through her silence, first refusing to answer questions on the basis of solicitor-client privilege, and then resigning from cabinet “with a heavy heart,” but no additional details.

Justin Trudeau has spent the past three weeks trying to put out the flames.

He has denied any wrongdoing, as has Gerald Butts, his closest friend and advisor, who resigned from the PMO in the “best interests of the office and its important work.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, left, leaves his office with his principal secretary Gerald Butts on April 10, 2018. Butts recently resigned amid allegations that the Prime Minister’s Office interfered to prevent criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin. (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Since then, Wilson-Raybould has addressed a closed-door meeting of her former cabinet colleagues, and has told the House of Commons of her desire for an opportunity to “speak my truth” about the allegations.

She has sought legal advice from a former justice of the Supreme Court of Canada, and obtained a waiver, via a special order in council, that expressly allows her to share all cabinet “confidences” regarding her discussions about the prosecution of SNC-Lavalin.

However, the authority does not extend to her communications with Kathleen Roussel, the Director of Public Prosecutions, the woman who made the call to forge ahead with the SNC-Lavalin case last October, rejecting the company’s bid to avoid possible criminal sanction via a remediation agreement.

Wilson-Raybould will open her testimony to the House of Commons Justice Committee late this afternoon with an extra-long, half-hour opening statement to offer her “best recollection of all the relevant communications,” and will stick around as long as there are questions.

But it surely won’t be enough to extinguish the controversy, given her claims that she still can’t speak fully and freely about her demotion, resignation, or what she said to her former cabinet colleagues during the private Feb. 19 meeting.

The three weeks of wall-to-wall coverage of the affair is clearly weighing down the Trudeau government.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau arrives for a caucus meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Wednesday. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Five of the six opinion surveys that have been taken since the news broke show that the Liberals have slipped to second place in voter intentions.

And CBC’s aggregated Poll Tracker now has the federal Conservatives sitting almost two points up on the Liberals, with 35.8 per cent support compared to 33.9 per cent.

The fall 2019 election is still 235 days away, sufficient time for the Liberals to put the affair behind them.

But that all depends on what JWR plans to say.


North Korea’s upper hand

A win for the U.S. at the summit with North Korea may not be a win for America’s allies in the region, producer Anand Ram writes.

Between Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, there are nine years of experience leading a country. Seven of those are Kim’s.

While Trump hopes the meetings that kicked off today in Vietnam will be “equal or greater than the first” summit last June, some who have been watching North Korea’s closed-off dictatorship for decades say the dealmaker-in-chief might not have the upper hand going in.

U.S. President Donald Trump, left, meets North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, on Wednesday. (Host Broadcast via Associated Press)

That’s more than a little concerning to North Korea’s neighbours, since what Trump may want to negotiate may not make them any safer from a North Korean attack, nuclear or otherwise.

The National  recently spoke to Naoko Aoki, the Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the Rand Corporation and a former journalist with Japan’s Kyodo News agency, about the regional dynamics at play in Hanoi. Here are excerpts from the interview:

President Trump famously tweeted after the first summit in Singapore that there is “no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea” — is that true?

Naoko Aoki:  I do not think that the North Korean nuclear threat has been reduced in any significant way.

When you think about the North Korean nuclear threat, I think it’s useful to think about three elements. One, the North Koreans’ ability to make fuel for nuclear weapons. The second is existing nuclear weapons, the ones that they’ve already built. And the third is their delivery systems — so these are missiles.

North Korea said in April, before the [first] summit, that it will no longer test nuclear weapons and missiles. And it has kept to this promise. But [all it] does is it prevents them from improving their existing missiles and nuclear weapons. It does nothing to reduce the number they already have.

In fact, they are not under explicit obligation to stop producing fuel for nuclear weapons.

Naoko Aoki is a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at the RAND Corporation whose research includes security issues in the Asia-Paciic region with a focus on North Korea. (CBC)

Does the threat differ depending on where you live?

Aoki:  Yes, I think so. The threat looks very different in Asia.

[Regarding] the United States, the North Koreans tested their most powerful missile in late 2017 and then declared that it could hit anywhere in the United States with a nuclear-tipped missile. But there’s some question as to whether they can really do that reliably.

Whereas in Asia, there are many places in the region they can hit — including U.S. allies South Korea, Japan and U.S. bases in the region — with nuclear-tipped missiles.

One of those allies is Japan. What are some of its concerns going into the summit, and what would a good outcome look like?

Aoki:  Japan has two major policy goals for North Korea.

One is to solve a dispute with North Korea over the kidnapping of Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. This is a very emotional issue for Japan, and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said repeatedly that this is a policy priority.

The second issue is the nuclear threat. Japan wants a solution to the nuclear problem, too. So for this summit, anything that promotes a solution — or rather, moves a step closer to the solution — to either of those or preferably both of those policy goals will be a good outcome for Japan.

North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un with North Korea’s Hwasong-15 intercontinental ballistic rocket in an undated photo released by his country’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Nov. 30, 2017. (Reuters)

What would a bad outcome look like?

Aoki:  This North Korea/U.S. process is probably going to be a step-by-step process. So that means you cannot, or probably can’t, solve everything all at once. Something has to be prioritized.

And if the United States prioritizes, for example, the dismantlement of the long-range missiles that would reach the United States and capping the production of fuel for nuclear weapons, that would not really reduce the nuclear threat to Japan, because North Korea would still be able to hit Japan with nuclear-tipped missiles.

What would you like to see come out of this summit?

Aoki:  I think a positive outcome would involve two elements, in my mind. One is an agreement on a longer-term workable framework toward denuclearization, and the narrowing of the gap between the two countries over the term ‘denuclearization.’ They mean different things [to both sides].

The second element includes concrete steps. The June summit produced a joint statement that was very vague and aspirational, but that did not lead to substantive denuclearization steps by North Korea. So I will be looking at whether this summit — the summit in Hanoi — will produce more tangible steps.

Watch as Adrienne Arsenault tackles the question “Is the North Korea threat over?” on The National:

North Korea has not conducted a single nuclear test in well over a year. After the first summit Trump tweeted: “There is no longer a Nuclear Threat from North Korea.” But is he right? 2:04

  • Like this newsletter? Sign up and have it delivered by email.
  • You may also like our early-morning newsletter, the Morning Brief — start the day with the news you need in one quick and concise read. Sign up here.

Political panel

President Trump is in Hanoi, but Michael Cohen’s testimony in Washington today is clearly top of mind for him, writes producer Tarannum Kamlani.

Con Man. Cheat. Racist.

These words are how many of Donald J. Trump’s enemies have described him  since he began his rise to the Presidency. But these epithets also formed part of the highly anticipated testimony by the President’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen before the U.S. Congress today.

Michael Cohen, left, is the former lawyer for U.S. President Donald J. Trump, right. ( Don Emmert, Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images))

Cohen’s opening remarks were leaked to the media overnight and set the stage for some fireworks on Capitol Hill.

Cohen is set to go to prison in a couple of months for lying to Congress. Republicans have used this to try and discredit him, dismissing his testimony as part of a grudge against Trump.

Cohen’s testimony is clearly on the President’s mind as he engages in some international diplomacy with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un in Hanoi.

He was reportedly up all night tweeting, among them this one: “Michael Cohen was one of many lawyers who represented me (unfortunately). He had other clients also. He was just disbarred by the State Supreme Court for lying & fraud. He did bad things unrelated to Trump. He is lying in order to reduce his prison time. Using Crooked’s lawyer!”

Michael Cohen arrives to testify before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on Capitol Hill on Wednesday in Washington. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

In Hanoi, meanwhile, Trump’s attempted charm offensive was on full display. The President told Kim, “I think your country has tremendous economic potential, unbelievable, unlimited. I think that you will have a tremendous future for your country, you’re a great leader, and I look forward to watching it happen and helping it to happen.”

Stakes are high for both leaders as the summit gets underway.  Kim wants the U.S. to ease sanctions and build up his country’s devastated economy. For his part, Trump has tried to win over Kim by stating that there is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea, contradicting his own top diplomats.

Making sense of it all is The National‘s U.S. political panel tonight with Adrienne Arsenault. She’s joined by  Jai Chabria, Republican strategist and former chief of staff to ex-Ohio Governor John Kasich, and  Stefanie Brown-James, co-founder of Collective PAC and member of President Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, who will offer a view from the Democrats. The CBC’s Keith Boag will also weigh in from Washington, D.C. Hope you’ll join us!

– Tarannum Kamlani


A few words on … 

A much-longer journey than planned.


Quote of the moment

Donald Trump is a man who ran for office to make his brand great, not to make our country great. He had no desire or intention to lead this nation – only to market himself and to build his wealth and power. Mr. Trump would often say, this campaign was going to be the ‘greatest infomercial in political history.'”

Michael Cohen, the U.S. President’s former lawyer and fixer, in testimony before Congress in Washington this morning.

Michael Cohen, U.S. President Donald Trump’s former personal attorney. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)


What The National is reading

  • 8 questions the justice committee is likely to ask Jody Wilson-Raybould today (CBC)
  • Thousands of migrant children allege abuse by U.S. border officials (Al Jazeera)
  • 25 killed at Cairo rail station after railcar crashes, fuel tank explodes (CBC)
  • Spain investigates alleged attack on North Korean embassy in Madrid (El Pais)
  • ‘This isn’t over’: Islamic State loyalties linger despite defeat (Reuters)
  • ‘Tiniest baby boy ever’ leaves Tokyo hospital (BBC)
  • Brussels warns Italy, Greece over high debt and bad loans (Politico EU)
  • Netherlands cuts Muslim man’s benefits over his refusal to shave his beard (Guardian)
  • 30-million-page archive of humanity’s achievements headed to the moon (Fox News)

Today in history

Feb. 27, 1969: Toronto’s first mosque opens

There’s still some dispute, but CBC’s The Day It Is declared the Jami Mosque in Toronto’s West End as the city’s first Muslim house of worship. Take a tour of the former Presbyterian church — now pewless and carpeted — on the day it opened to serve a community of 5,000.

A church on the city’s west side is converted into a mosque serving a community of 5,000 Muslims. 6:35

Sign up here and have The National Today newsletter delivered directly to your inbox Monday to Friday.

Please send your ideas, news tips, rants, and compliments to thenationaltoday@cbc.ca. ​