How Gerald Butts's combative use of Twitter brought him out of the shadows
Traditional reticence of PM's ex-principal secretary melted in the glare of social media
Key aides to a prime minister generally prefer to stay in the shadows, perhaps providing background information to Parliament Hill journalists, but rarely giving interviews or generating much of a public persona.
In some ways, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's former principal secretary Gerald Butts carried on that tradition, rarely quoted, speaking to journalists only on background.
But he was particularly outspoken on the social media site Twitter.
Butts, who resigned Monday in the wake of the SNC-Lavalin affair, garnered a reputation of being a prolific tweeter, never shy to express his opinions, or "personal views" as he referred to them.
He would promote and champion the Liberal Party and the prime minister's policy initiatives. But he would also defend the prime minister, sometimes lash out at critics, take partisan swipes at the Conservatives and engage in Twitter spats with politicians and journalists.
Even before Trudeau became prime minister in 2015, Butts was a presence on Twitter. In that year's election campaign, Butts went after one of his favourite targets, news media company Postmedia, over their articles about Trudeau's insistence that all new Liberal candidates must be pro-choice on abortion.
Read <a href="https://twitter.com/cselley?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@cselley</a> mock The Star, then guess how many breathless op-eds his paper published on Trudeau's pro-choice policy.—@gmbutts
And just before the election.
Postmedia has done to Canadian journalism what Harper's party has done to Canadian politics. Discuss.—@gmbutts
But after Trudeau became prime minister, Butts's criticism about the media company continued: Sometimes in a more cheeky manner:
Your country is red.<br>Postmedia is blue.<br>They can't figure out what happened. <br>So they blame you.<a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/cdnpoliValentines?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#cdnpoliValentines</a>—@gmbutts
Butts would also tangle with journalists, as he did over a Vogue photo shoot of Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.
Did Mandela's wife borrow a $5,600 dress for the photo shoot? <a href="https://t.co/lDufnQdN6t">https://t.co/lDufnQdN6t</a>—@glen_mcgregor
Or critiques of Trudeau's availability to the media:
Really? PM Trudeau has done more open media availabilities in 3 months than PM Harper did in 3 years. <a href="https://t.co/HukRmWjHIX">https://t.co/HukRmWjHIX</a>—@gmbutts
In 2018, when the Liberals announced tax incentives for the news industry, some journalists expressed concerns about what they might mean for journalistic independence.
I don’t agree with this thinking, obviously.<br><br>This public policy is not immune from being debated, by you or me or anyone else. Its content should analyzed according to historical and current global democratic norms, and it should be compared on its merits to the alternatives. <a href="https://t.co/VEISMD92D7">https://t.co/VEISMD92D7</a>—@gmbutts
He certainly wasn't above scolding the media.
The (Stadler &) Waldorf school of journalism. <a href="https://t.co/ROE5GIq0mM">https://t.co/ROE5GIq0mM</a>—@gmbutts
Here, he made a veiled critique of Canadian media for following stories on Russian websites raising questions about the grandfather of Foreign Affairs Minister Chrystia Freeland and his ties to the Nazis.
Keep this for reference the next time a Russian foreign officer pitches you a story, Canadian journos. <br> <a href="https://t.co/3KjTowWLJX">https://t.co/3KjTowWLJX</a>—@gmbutts
He also went after the Globe and Mail in 2016 over an editorial about questions surrounding the birthplace of Liberal cabinet minister Maryam Monsef, comparing the article to the birther movement that falsely claimed former U.S. president Barack Obama was not born in the U.S.
The Globe and Mail endorses a homegrown Canadian birther movement. Breathtaking. <a href="https://t.co/ljKsSyoBtP">https://t.co/ljKsSyoBtP</a>—@gmbutts
Which sparked its own backlash with some journalists.
No, that was definitely not the Obama birthers' thing. They had many things, but their main thing was racism. <a href="https://t.co/0Cchv4ZFCs">https://t.co/0Cchv4ZFCs</a>—@gmbutts
Butts would also tangle with politicians. Conservative MP Erin O'Toole was a regular opponent.
Nice to see you at our kids’ swim meet too, Erin. Up early for Ava’s Friday morning practice and just catching this. Happy <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/FamilyDay?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#FamilyDay</a>. <a href="https://t.co/EzwMHVSb1z">https://t.co/EzwMHVSb1z</a>—@gmbutts
So was Alberta's United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney.
Trolling from his twitter team is no surprise, but a candidate for Premier should be above it. I left QP in spring of 2008, which he knows. <a href="https://t.co/BiKAib2OGo">https://t.co/BiKAib2OGo</a>—@gmbutts
Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, as well, got into an exchange over his survey about pipeline politics.
So you don’t need to waste any more of your Saturday worrying about my survey. But if you have some spare time..maybe you could help get the pipeline built. <a href="https://t.co/3LUuAupE7N">https://t.co/3LUuAupE7N</a>—@BradWall306
Butts would also get involved in Twitter skirmishes with policy analysts. In February 2016, he debated with experts over the Liberals' ant-ISIS plan.
<a href="https://twitter.com/gmbutts?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@gmbutts</a> but it is an incoherent argument. Why support combat but not do combat? Is Trudeau a pacifist?—@smsaideman
We've only been making this argument for 18 months. We've owned it a long time. <a href="https://t.co/PxvJeW3ohq">https://t.co/PxvJeW3ohq</a>—@gmbutts
Twitter was also a tool to launch defences of his boss. He slammed critics who ridiculed Trudeau for using the term peoplekind instead of mankind during a town hall in Edmonton.
Although Trudeau later brushed it off as a "dumb joke," Butts would take a step further, suggesting those who were so offended by the term were alt-right Nazi sympathizers.
The lesson to take from this joke being torqued by Infowars and other alt-right nazi friends of the Rebel is they're paying attention. Game on, <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TeamTrudeau?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TeamTrudeau</a>. <a href="https://t.co/frhv4A4kWz">https://t.co/frhv4A4kWz</a>—@gmbutts
Butts regularly employed the alt-right characterization, and he used it again to label those he felt were prejudiced against asylum seekers.
Enough is enough. It’s time to stand up to this divisive fear-mongering about asylum seekers. Let’s not allow the alt-right to do here what they’re doing elsewhere. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/thread?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#thread</a> <a href="https://t.co/nnFiJ3UOBf">https://t.co/nnFiJ3UOBf</a>—@gmbutts
That led to this exchange with Toronto Sun editor emeritus and columnist Lorrie Goldstein:
I’m old enough to remember when it would have been remarkable to see a journalist give direction to a political party. <br><br>Our borders are secure, and it’s irresponsible to suggest otherwise. <a href="https://t.co/B5kvyyYuHW">https://t.co/B5kvyyYuHW</a>—@gmbutts
Naturally, the federal Tories were constant target. Whether it was the previous Harper government:
If the Conservatives were still in power, the government of Canada would have folded like a cheap tent to Trump by now. Remember this next year. <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/NAFTA?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#NAFTA</a> <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/TeamTrudeau?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#TeamTrudeau</a> <a href="https://t.co/SJZVIWs7Qb">https://t.co/SJZVIWs7Qb</a>—@gmbutts
Another Harper law gets cut to pieces in court. Managerial competence indeed. <a href="https://t.co/ez4NWkrxQw">https://t.co/ez4NWkrxQw</a>—@gmbutts
Or the current Conservative party:
On economic policy as on climate change, Mr Scheer and his party are just making stuff up. Canadians are smarter than this brand of CPC politician thinks they are. <a href="https://t.co/8e7aH8fgZI">https://t.co/8e7aH8fgZI</a>—@gmbutts
Indeed, the former CEO of the World Wildlife Federation's Canadian office made his political opponents' climate change policies, or the lack thereof, a consistent topic.
The Conservative Party has been taken over by the far-right fringe on the environment, in Ontario and nationally. There’s no room for sensible ideas. That’s why neither Ford nor Scheer has a climate plan. <a href="https://t.co/TpKgh1uD1V">https://t.co/TpKgh1uD1V</a>—@gmbutts
Ontario passes the buck (and a much larger bill) on <a href="https://twitter.com/hashtag/climatechange?src=hash&ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">#climatechange</a> to my kids and yours. <br><br>It’s an abdication of national leadership that would embarrass most Premiers in the history of that great province. <a href="https://t.co/UCXRDaqIUa">https://t.co/UCXRDaqIUa</a>—@gmbutts
It may be fitting that Butts, shortly after his resignation, used the forum to post his resignation letter and thank those who offered notes of encouragement.
Thanks for the notes of encouragement to all who have reached out. <a href="https://twitter.com/jodilhbutts?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw">@jodilhbutts</a> and I appreciate the love and support. But public institutions are bigger and more important than any of their temporary occupants. Please see my statement. <a href="https://t.co/LkybmLiYbG">https://t.co/LkybmLiYbG</a>—@gmbutts
- A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Gerald Butts tangled with journalists over a Vogue photo shoot featuring him and his wife, Jodi. In fact, the photo shoot was of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife, Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.Feb 22, 2019 11:48 AM ET