Justin Trudeau Cites ‘Erosion of Trust’ Over Case That Became Political Crisis

OTTAWA — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada said on Thursday that a dispute with his former justice minister that has ballooned into a political crisis came from a breakdown in trust and communication.

“I was not aware of that erosion of trust, and as prime minister and head of cabinet, I should have been,” Mr. Trudeau told a news conference in Ottawa. “Ultimately, I believe our government will be stronger for having wrestled with these issues.”

The remarks were Mr. Trudeau’s first about a brewing controversy in which the prime minister had been depicted as inappropriately and repeatedly pressuring his justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to settle a corporate criminal case to protect Canadian jobs.

And they followed a month of controversy that in some ways seems quaint: No money changed hands and no laws appear to have been broken.

The political wreckage from that perception has been huge.

[How Justin Trudeau Was Ensnared by Scandal]

The prime minister’s popularity has sunk, calls for his resignation still echo, two powerful female ministers — one of them the justice minister — have resigned in protest — and he has lost his top political adviser, who is a close friend, in the mess.

Seven months before the national election, he needed to convince the country that he was still the feminist, “sunny ways” politician, committed to righting the country’s wrongs and doing politics in open, transparent way.

Unlike leaders in other nations, Canadian prime ministers rarely make major speeches outside the House of Commons except during campaigns, underscoring the political perils Mr. Trudeau faces.

At the center of the controversy is the giant Canadian engineering and construction company SNC-Lavalin, which in 2015 was charged with bribing Libyan officials during the dictatorship of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi and defrauding the Libyan government.

Mr. Trudeau and his top aides were accused of trying to get the justice minister, Jody Wilson-Raybould, to allow the company to avoid a conviction — which would bar it from government contracts for a decade — and instead negotiate a monetary penalty.

The prime minister’s first reaction was to dismiss the accusations, and charge forward, hoping they’d shrink in the headlines. Instead, they grew.

He also seemed to criticize Ms. Wilson-Raybould for not raising her concerns with him about impropriety late last year when the debate about how to handle the case was underway.

The remarks only made matters worse.

Last week, Ms. Wilson-Raybould offered provocative testimony to a House of Commons justice committee. She described months of being hounded by members of the prime minister’s team, long after she told them her mind was made up to pursue a criminal conviction.

She called their behavior inappropriate and described “veiled threats.”

Mr. Butts said that the former minister never told anyone else in government that a decision had been made. The criminal prosecution of the company continues.

Now the prime minister’s brand of transparency and openness was badly scuffed.

On Wednesday, Gerald Butts, the prime minister’s former chief political adviser and best friend, appeared before the committee, trying to repair the situation.

He painted a very different picture of interactions with Ms. Wilson-Raybould, saying she was not pressured in the case.

Instead, he said, she was asked to get an outside opinion about using the monetary penalty because thousands of Canadian jobs would be imperiled if the company lost business.

“When 9,000 people’s jobs are at stake, it is a public policy problem of the highest order,” Mr. Butts said. “It was our obligation to exhaustively consider options the law allows.”

Still, many had been waiting to hear more from Mr. Trudeau.

Several polls show that Mr. Trudeau’s popularity has fallen over the past few weeks as have the standing of the Liberals, his party.

Mr. Trudeau canceled a trip to Saskatchewan on Tuesday and holed up with his closest advisers at his office across the street from Parliament.

Although Mr. Butts resigned two weeks ago — because of what he called loyalty to the prime minister — Mr. Trudeau still has Katie Telford, his chief of staff who ran his successful campaign in 2015, and other aides.

Leading up to his speech, Mr. Trudeau atypically avoided answering reporters’ questions.

But on Monday evening, Mr. Trudeau spoke at a political rally in Toronto, where he was interrupted by hecklers.

“This matter has generated an important discussion,” he said, “how 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. Concerns of this nature must be taken very seriously.”