March 5, 2019 8:47 pm
Updated: March 6, 2019 11:05 am

Trudeau expected to change his tone on SNC-Lavalin affair in a statement in coming days

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau participates in an armchair discussion at the Prospectors & Developers Association of Canada Convention in Toronto on Tuesday, March 5, 2019.

THE CANADIAN PRESS/Christopher Katsarov
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is expected to change his tone on the SNC-Lavalin controversy after an afternoon huddled with his closest advisers, as the Liberal government struggles to confront the political crisis engulfing it just months ahead of the election and moves into damage-control mode.

The prime minister cancelled a planned trip to Regina, instead returning to Ottawa for an emergency strategy session with his senior staff and advisers in order to come up with a way forward on the SNC-Lavalin affair.

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READ MORE: Ministers rally around Trudeau amid SNC-Lavalin affair — Here’s what they’re saying

A senior government source said a key part of those discussions was about the possible need for a change in tone. A new strategy is expected to come out of the meetings, one in which the prime minister is expected to strike a more apologetic tone and demonstrate contrition, likely in the form of a statement to Canadians.

The statement would not acknowledge any wrongdoing, the source says, but is expected to address the allegations of inappropriate pressure in a more apologetic way and express contrition over how his senior staff and officials allegedly conducted themselves.

Former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould has alleged that the prime minister, his senior staff and government officials put inappropriate pressure on her to intervene in the criminal prosecution of SNC-Lavalin, citing jobs and a looming election.

A senior source said Trudeau will not make any statement in advance of the testimony of his former principal secretary and close personal adviser Gerald Butts.

WATCH: PM’s former top adviser to testify publicly on Wednesday

Officials in the Prime Minister’s Office insist they do not know what Butts is going to say in his testimony before the House of Commons justice committee on Wednesday.

Butts was named by Wilson-Raybould as one the people who pressured her; he has since asked the justice committee to appear in order to present his side of the story.

Senior advisers want to hear the testimony of both Butts and Privy Council Clerk Michael Wernick — who Wilson-Raybould has accused of making veiled threats against her — before putting the prime minister up to speak. Political staff believe it would be high-risk to put the prime minister out in advance of these testimonies, as the story is rapidly changing.

READ MORE: ‘I have lost confidence’ — Jane Philpott resigns from cabinet over Trudeau’s handling of SNC-Lavalin affair

The turning point for the Liberal brain trust on the need for a new approach came with the sudden political shock of Jane Philpott’s resignation on Monday. Philpott was a trusted senior minister in the Trudeau government who resigned over the SNC-Lavalin affair, stating in her letter of resignation that she no longer had confidence in the government and could not continue on while abiding by her “core values” and “ethical responsibilities.”

Philpott’s letter and resignation shook Team Trudeau to its core and triggered the decision to rethink the government’s approach. The source acknowledged that the situation to date “has been a mess.”

Multiple senior Liberal sources say pressure has been mounting on the PMO to change its tactics and handling of the controversy.

WATCH: Global News coverage of the SNC-Lavalin affair

The first sign that the prime minister was considering a significant change in tone came last night, when he praised Philpott and recognized the SNC-Lavalin controversy had generated “an important discussion.”

“How our democratic institutions, specifically the federal ministry and the staff and officials that support it, conduct themselves is critical and core to all of our principles,” the prime minister said. Trudeau went on to insist that he is taking the situation seriously.

READ MORE: Trudeau cancels Regina trip to head into private meetings amid SNC-Lavalin affair

The comments were a shift from the prime minister’s previous approach that the actions of his staff and officials were above reproach and purely motivated by keeping jobs.

Multiple sources have told Global News that Philpott made her concerns clear on the SNC-Lavalin controversy at the cabinet table. Other ministers and senior staff, the sources say, attempted to reassure her, and some were aware that she was considering resigning but did not anticipate it was imminent and thought it may be averted.

A small handful of people were notified of Philpott’s decision to quit around midday on Monday, according to sources, and while the PMO was aware of her concerns, the decision to resign was still a surprise, especially given the prime minister had just executed a cabinet shuffle on Friday.

READ MORE: Most Canadians side with Wilson-Raybould, believe Trudeau has lost moral authority to govern — Ipsos poll

Cue David MacNaughton to the rescue, Canada’s ambassador to the United States but also one of the most respected and sought-after political minds in the Liberal party. MacNaughton, who was in Ottawa for meetings on steel and aluminium tariffs, was brought in to offer his expertise as the government finds itself falling deeper into crisis and facing declining poll numbers.

MacNaughton is well respected in political circles of all partisan stripes for his crisis communication skills and political judgment. Numerous Liberal sources who have spoken to Global News had been calling for MacNaughton to be brought in much earlier in the process.

The prime minister has no public appearances scheduled tomorrow, when Butts and Wernick will testify, and as to what, exactly, the prime minister will do going forward, the senior government source says the situation is still fluid.

© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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