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Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau Accused Of Intervening In Criminal Case

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Around the world, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is widely seen as a liberal icon, championing climate change and human rights for refugees and indigenous peoples. Now, though, he is facing a big scandal at home. He's accused of meddling in a criminal case to protect a powerful company. North Country Public Radio's Brian Mann reports from the Canadian capital Ottawa.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: This dangerous moment for Justin Trudeau erupted last month when a Toronto newspaper published an expose. It claimed the prime minister intervened in the criminal prosecution of a multinational engineering firm headquartered in Montreal called SNC-Lavalin. Lavalin is accused of a bribery and fraud scheme that funneled tens of millions of dollars to the family of former Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi a decade ago. Testifying before parliament, former attorney general Jody Wilson-Raybould said Trudeau himself pressured her to go easy on Lavalin.

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JODY WILSON-RAYBOULD: I asked, quote, "are you politically interfering with my role, my decision as the attorney general? I would strongly advise against it," end quote. The prime minister, said, no, no, no. We just need to find a solution.

MANN: But Wilson-Raybould says Trudeau refused to back off. He and his staff kept pushing for months, warning her that if the company was prosecuted aggressively, it could affect jobs in Montreal and cripple the Liberal Party's re-election chances.

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WILSON-RAYBOULD: Where they became very clearly inappropriate was when political issues came up, like the election in Quebec. In my mind, those were veiled threats.

MANN: Wilson-Raybould says she was later punished by Trudeau, who shoveled her out of the attorney general's post and gave her a lesser appointment in his cabinet. She resigned over the affair. And yesterday, a second high-profile cabinet minister, Treasury Board Secretary Jane Philpott, also stepped down after writing a public letter accusing Trudeau of violating the rule of law in Canada. Speaking with reporters Monday, Trudeau acknowledged lobbying on behalf of Lavalin but said his attorney general remained independent.

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PRIME MINISTER JUSTIN TRUDEAU: This matter is to be determined by the attorney general. That is what I said to the former attorney general. And that's something that the current attorney general knows full well.

MANN: Still, the fallout here has been swift, with editorial pages and newspapers across Canada condemning Trudeau. His Conservative Party rival Andrew Scheer is calling for his resignation and a new criminal probe.

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ANDREW SCHEER: Justin Trudeau simply cannot continue to govern this country now that Canadians know what he has done.

MANN: Most of Trudeau's cabinet members are sticking with him so far. But NPR found a lot of Liberal Party voters on the streets of Ottawa, like Ian Wright, who say this could open the door to the Conservative Party returning to power in national elections next fall.

IAN WRIGHT: I think it's wounding Trudeau. My friends and I are a little upset with him for messing up.

MANN: Even if Trudeau survives, Daniel Beland, a political science professor at McGill University in Montreal, says it will be hard for him to regain the credibility he needs to push an ambitious agenda on climate change and health care spending.

DANIEL BELAND: There is quite a bit of damage to his brand and the idea that, basically, he said he would change politics. And in the end, he's just a politician like any other.

MANN: Trudeau faces more potential damage this week. His top political adviser and longtime confidant Gerald Butts has also resigned over the scandal. He's scheduled to testify about the Lavalin affair before a parliamentary committee tomorrow. Brian Mann, NPR News, Ottawa.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TRAGICALLY HIP'S "THE DARKEST ONE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.