Trudeau silent on special rapporteur's foreign interference report

'A well-grounded suspicion ... might not hit the high threshold for overturning the result of a democratic event,' said Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on the special rapporteur's review of Han Dong's nomination race.

Trudeau silent on special rapporteur's foreign interference report
The Canadian Press / Justin Tang and The Canadian Press / Andrew Lahodynskyj
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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau neither defended nor rejected the conclusions reached by his special rapporteur on foreign interference.

On Wednesday, the prime minister commented on David Johnston’s report at the request of lawyers representing the Foreign Interference Commission.

On alleged foreign meddling at the 2019 Liberal nomination for Don Valley North, Johnston alleged irregularities by the Chinese Consulate in Toronto, with whom MP Han Dong maintains relations.

Johnston, the special rapporteur on foreign interference and a family friend of Trudeau, earlier testified “strange practices, unusual practices going on,” with the bussing in of foreign students. However, he could not verify the involvement of Chinese agents.

Questions have since been raised in Johnston’s report by the Commission, over his refusal to call for a public inquiry.

“Do you accept firstly that there were irregularities in that nomination contest, and secondly, that they were likely tied to the PRC consulate in Toronto,” asked Gib van Ert, counsel for MP Michael Chong.

“A well-grounded suspicion is certainly warranting more reflection and follow ups, but also might not hit the necessarily very high threshold for overturning the result of a democratic event,” replied Trudeau.

However, the recent disclosure of intelligence documents from the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) called China and its proxies “highly capable and motivated” to intrude on Canada’s democratic process.

Trudeau did not specify whether he backed the suspicions held by Johnston over the nomination.

“I can’t speak to the analysis made by others,” he said. “Distinguishing what I knew in 2019 from what I may have learned later leaves me in an awkward position around answering this.”

On September 30, 2019, the prime minister received an in-person briefing on Dong’s nomination before boarding a plane to campaign voters for the general election. He never followed up on the allegations of foreign interference but believes Party officials might have. 

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) earlier received an intelligence memo urging the Liberal Party to rescind Dong’s nomination. They refused the advice.

"We examined our own nomination process ... And based on that review we saw nothing that stood out as irregular," said Jeremy Broadhurst, a PMO adviser. 

Azam Ishmael, national director of the Liberal Party, testified he was satisfied there were no irregularities in Don Valley North.

On Wednesday, Trudeau told Commission lawyers he pondered booting Dong as a candidate but never took action. He attributed uncertainties with the intelligence for the decision.

According to the inquiry, Dong’s campaign bused foreign students from New Oriental International College Academy in Markham, Ontario, which is not located in Don Valley North. They are alleged to have voted under duress from the Consulate.

The riding association did not keep a detailed record of the nomination vote.

Last November 28, the Liberal Party refused to surrender “all documents” concerning then-Liberal MP Han Dong’s nomination after the Procedure and House Affairs Committee rejected an investigation request.

Johnston’s main argument against the inquiry is that public disclosures of classified intelligence "cannot be done."

Global News previously reported on leaked classified intelligence that named Dong a "witting affiliate in China's election interference networks." 

"Foreign interference is not usually embodied in discrete one-off pieces of intelligence," said Johnston upon publishing his report. 

"In a free democracy, it is not up to unelected security officials to dictate to political parties who can or cannot run," Trudeau earlier told reporters. Last week, he claimed there was no foreign interference in Canada’s institutions.

However, that contravenes disclosed intelligence reports and testimony from Dong’s then-campaign manager Ted Lojko.

The riding is one of 13 disclosed by the Conservative Party of alleged foreign interference.

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