Jen Gerson: The Liberals, masters at winning themselves to death
The Liberals have made the Chinese interference scandal worse for themselves at every possible step.
I have no sympathy for the predicament the Liberal party now finds itself in. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and all his hangers-on are the authors of their own misfortunes. When it comes to the stories of Chinese electoral interference now dominating the headlines, this government is the victim of its own short-sightedness and arrogance, and there's nothing more to it.
Sure, this scandal was probably inevitably going to come out — and these revelations, to be clear, still amount to relatively small-ball operations that had no impact on the overall election. Further, allegations that members of the Ottawa bubble have been captured or influenced by China were probably always going to be made public. Canada isn't unique. What's happened here is entirely congruent with foreign operations by the Chinese Communist Party in other countries like the U.K. and Australia.
None of this ought to have been a shock, and none of it needed to put the Prime Minister's Office in its current state of calcified pickle. After all, rumours and off-the-record chats about this stuff have been going around for literally years.
No, how this crew has chosen to handle these stories at every single step has made the scandal worse for themselves. Every. Single. Step. All of the damage has been self-inflicted.
This government is the epitome of an organization that is tactically smart and strategically dumb. Not only has their damage control mirrored the response of the SNC scandal (that ended so well for them), but every misstep has had the result of slowly backing the prime minister into rhetorical traps he has set for himself. This is a government that knows how to win the daily news cycle by losing the game. One that can't distinguish between legitimate criticism and bad-faith partisan attack — probably because it is so insular and bunker-bound that it sees the world before it divided between loyalists and blood enemies. It's symptomatic of leadership that is in its final stages of terminal fatigue, and doesn't yet realize it. These guys cannot help but win themselves to death.
Let's start at the beginning.
Trudeau set himself up for problems when he responded to a Global story last fall by denying he had ever been briefed by CSIS about candidates being influenced by funding from China in the 2019 election.
This position was later totally discredited by testimony from his own national security advisor, who said the prime minister had been briefed multiple times about Chinese interference in both the 2019 and 2021 elections.
The TruAnon crowd will swarm me if I outright say that he lied. He was briefed, sure, but not on funding specifically.
Oh, fuck off. Firstly, I don't believe that he could have been briefed multiple times without the issue of funding coming up. Secondly, to anyone trying that line of defence, I will point to what I've written above: remember what I said about being tactically smart and strategically stupid? You're doing it again.
What if, instead of claiming he'd never been briefed, Trudeau back in November, responded with something like:
"Foreign interference from a broad range of actors is an ongoing problem in many countries, including ours. Of course I'm regularly briefed by our able intelligence service on an ongoing basis, and I respond accordingly. While I can't always give details about it due to national security concerns, I will always take reports and threats seriously and to respond appropriately."
It would be nice if all of that were also true, but governing is hard and this is Canada and no one is expecting miracles. At the very least, if Trudeau had responded like a serious and mature prime minister back then, he would have the political room to maneuver as more allegations were published.
To illustrate, let's take this thought exercise a little further.
Imagine, as more stories hit the wire, the government had skipped all of those unnecessary weeks of obfuscation and deflection and simply appointed a special rapporteur to examine the need for a public inquiry. In this counterfactual, let's also assume that the person he picked isn't a long-time personal friend. What if Trudeau took allegations of interference seriously at the outset, and his party avoided stunts like skipping committee meetings and filibustering to prevent the testimony of his chief of staff, Katie Telford?
Where would they be today if they hadn't squandered every iota of credibility and goodwill with the press, the NDP, and his own intelligence services? To put it more directly, what if they hadn’t spent the past few weeks acting as if they had something to hide?
Would they be better off? Maybe?
As an aside, I notice that many of the Liberal proxies are out in force on social media attacking the media and CSIS in an effort to defend the sitting government. I have to ask: how's that working for y'all? Are you getting the sense that Global News and Sam Cooper and the Globe and Mail have been successfully cowed? Have their CSIS sources stopped leaking? Has Jagmeet Singh been brought to heel?
I'm going to put something out for consideration: Perhaps the denials, obfuscations and attacks are only making the scandal worse. They're convincing journalists that there's a real story here while prompting an already pissy collection of national security sources to leak harder.
And now we get to the pivotal moment of my counterfactual comms plan.
When Liberal MP Han Dong's connections to China were first raised, along with a story alleging that CSIS advised the Liberals to disqualify him as a Liberal candidate as a result of those connections, Trudeau was asked about it directly.
We got this response from the prime minister:
"Let me start by being very very clear. There are 1.7 million Canadians who proudly trace their origins back to China. Those Canadians should always be welcomed as full Canadians and encouraged to stand for office, to get involved in their communities, and to take on part of the leadership of this country ... But let me be also very clear to a really important point that I think some folks are choosing to overlook. In a free democracy, it's not up to unelected security officials to dictate to political parties who can or cannot run. That's a really important principle we have. Of course we draw on expertise every step of the way, but the suggestion we've seen in the media that CSIS would somehow say no this person cannot run or no that person cannot run is not just false, it's actually damaging to peoples' confidence in our democratic and political institutions."
Of course, nobody had suggested that CSIS was dictating who could or could not run for office. The whole statement is an egregious deflection. And to their credit, a reporter at that press conference largely ignored it and pressed the matter again.
Was Trudeau briefed about Han Dong, or not?
"Once again, one of the things we've seen, unfortunately, over the past few years is a rise in anti-Asian racism linked to the pandemic, and concerns arising out of peoples' loyalties. I want to make everybody understand fully that Han Dong is an outstanding member of our team, and suggestions that he is somehow not loyal to Canada should not be entertained."
Well that all aged like fine American cheese, didn't it?
If Trudeau hadn't lied back in the fall, he could have just said: "Yeah, CSIS briefed us about Mr. Dong. We didn't find the evidence against him compelling and believe him to be a great MP today."
That would have been a straightforward and perfectly reasonable answer, one that wouldn't have — dare I say — eroded peoples' confidence in our democratic and political institutions. Instead, every mistruth and evasion is compounding upon itself. That statement above looks even worse than it did a few weeks ago. And it didn't smell great back when it was fresh.
Trudeau has set himself up to look terrible in the face of stories now flying fast and furious off the digital presses at both Global and the Globe and Mail.
Earlier this week, Global alleged that national security sources overheard Han Dong supplying advice to the Chinese consulate in Toronto. According to the story, Dong told China's top diplomat in Canada to continue to detain the two Michaels, Canadian citizens who had already been subject to hundreds of days' captivity as part of an ongoing hostage diplomacy gambit. Somehow, this would benefit the Liberals.
Dong has denied this, but has nonetheless resigned from the Liberal caucus to sit as an independent. He has threatened to sue Global.
Meanwhile, in the Global story, the PMO has claimed that it had heard nothing about these allegations prior to being asked for comment from Global.
Jesus, that lie didn't hold for 24 hours. This morning, the Globe and Mail published a story noting that they had asked the PMO about an apparent transcript of this conversation two-and-a-half weeks ago. Why would I believe that the PMO hadn’t heard about this conversation directly from our intelligence services back in 2021?
Look, I don't know whether or not Dong actually did advise Chinese diplomats to keep the two Michaels in captivity, or at least said something that caused CSIS to conclude he had. The odds that both outlets are just making this up are zero but I can't rule out the possibility that the intelligence services got this wrong. However, even what Dong has admitted to — meeting with a foreign government to discuss an ongoing hostage situation without advising the government or his leaders within the PMO — is already beyond the pale.
But if you say on Feb. 27 that your “outstanding” MP's loyalty to Canada can't be questioned, it's real hard to turn around and boot him from caucus after the Globe approaches you with reports of a bombshell transcript on March 3. See what I'm saying here? Tactically smart, strategically dumb.
I maintain that these stories ought to have been something that a rational and mature government could have managed. Instead, the whole thing has metastasized into an existential clown show that is beyond the talent of the juvenile and insular little clique running our government.
Look, I reserve judgment about whether or not this government is actually guilty of anything. A perfectly plausible explanation for Trudeau's actions is that he has been trying to deflect this scandal not because he and his crew are compromised, but rather because the whole Ottawa Establishment wants to avoid another nasty scrap with China. I'm not sure it has to be more complicated than that. It's also possible that elements within CSIS really have gone rogue.
Regardless, this whole drama is now so far into the second act that a diplomatic row is unavoidable.
If the Liberals believe Han Dong is innocent, the most expedient way to get this outstanding MP back to work is to call a public inquiry into Chinese interference. If they think Sam Cooper et al are just making shit up, that would become apparent at a public inquiry. If CSIS is an out-of-control racist Deep State entity working to overthrow a democratically elected prime minister, the best way to suss that out is to call a public inquiry. And if the Liberals are genuinely concerned about the effects all of these leaks might have on our democracy, then there is no better way to restore that confidence than to hold a public inquiry.
A public inquiry is not only inevitable, it's the strategically smart thing to do. The Liberals come around on this point, eventually: after all, when you can’t think strategically, sooner or later you run out of tactical options. The only question remaining is how much damage the party will do to itself, and to the country, in the interregnum.
Programming note: We’re probably not going to do a dispatch this Friday because Matt is on vacation and, really, what more is there to say? If you want to hear more Gerson, you can send an angry email about it to firstname.lastname@example.org today and she may reconsider.