How Scandal Ensnared Justin Trudeau: A Corruption Case and ‘Veiled Threats’

Four years ago, Justin Trudeau rose to Canada’s highest office as the second-youngest prime minister in the country’s history, promising “sunny ways” and a new era of honest government, equal representation and liberalism.

Now, Mr. Trudeau is entangled in a scandal involving allegations that his office pressured his justice minister to settle a criminal case against a major corporation accused of corrupt practices on three continents — including paying millions in bribes to Libyan officials during the regime of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi.

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As of Monday, two members of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet have resigned, as has his top political adviser. The ethics commissioner for Canada’s Parliament has opened an investigation, and several opposition party members have called for the police or an independent inquiry to take on the case.

In seven months, Mr. Trudeau faces an election. How did he get here, and what’s going on?

At the center of Mr. Trudeau’s political woes is SNC-Lavalin, a multinational engineering and construction firm based in Quebec.

In testimony to a parliamentary committee last month, Ms. Wilson-Raybould said that while she was justice minister, Mr. Trudeau and his aides used “political interference” and “veiled threats” to pressure her to settle the case against SNC-Lavalin.

She described 10 meetings, 10 conversations and a series of emails about the criminal case with senior government officials, calling the pressure “inappropriate” but saying that it was not illegal. In a conversation with Mr. Trudeau, she recalled him saying, “there would be many jobs lost and that SNC will move from Montreal,” and asking her to “find a solution here for SNC.”

Despite the pressure she described, prosecutors have continued to pursue the company in court.

Mr. Trudeau has denied any wrongdoing, and told reporters, “Canadians expect their government to look for ways to protect jobs, to grow the economy, and that’s exactly what we have done.”

He added that officials had acted “in a way that has respected our laws.”

But he has struggled to contain the political crisis. Following Mr. Wilson-Raybould, another member of Mr. Trudeau’s cabinet resigned, citing her “serious concerns” about the accusations of improper pressure.

“There can be a cost to acting on one’s principles, but there is a bigger cost to abandoning them,” the minister, Jane Philpott, said in her resignation letter.

And Mr. Trudeau’s top political adviser resigned in February, denying any wrongdoing but saying that it was “in the best interests of the office and its important work for me to step away.”

The justice committee in Canada’s House of Commons conducted a hearing with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, and will question other people involved. But Mr. Trudeau’s Liberal Party controls the panel, making it unlikely to do the prime minister much harm.

[Read more about what investigators hope to find about Mr. Trudeau’s conduct.]

Canada’s parliamentary ethics commissioner has opened an investigation, though by law he can look only for possible conflicts of interest.

The leader of the opposition Conservative Party has called for an investigation by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, whose policy prevents it from saying whether the force has begun an investigation. Several opposition parties have called for an independent special commission, which could create damaging hearings for the Liberals during the election season.

The political potential of all this has not been lost on Mr. Trudeau’s opponents. They have seized on the case to portray the prime minister — a self-described feminist, supporter of Indigenous people and advocate of transparent government — as a leader who sent his aides to bully an Indigenous woman in order to help a corporation dodge a criminal conviction in a corruption case.

Canada’s federal election is not until October, however, and analysts said the result will depend in large part on what happens next: whether Mr. Trudeau can defuse the scandal and the inquiries around it; how successfully his opponents can tar his reputation; and what happens with the SNC-Lavalin case.

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