Politics

How Gerald Butts's combative use of Twitter brought him out of the shadows

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's former principal secretary Gerald Butts was rarely quoted in news articles,speaking to journalists only on background. But he was particularly outspoken on one public forum: Twitter.

Traditional reticence of PM's ex-principal secretary melted in the glare of social media

Gerald Butts, former principal secretary to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, takes part in a Parliament Hill meeting in 2016. After his resignation Monday, Butts tweeted, 'Thanks for the notes of encouragement ... I appreciate the love and support.' (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

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.

And just before the election.

But after Trudeau became prime minister, Butts's criticism about the media company continued: Sometimes in a more cheeky manner:

Butts would also tangle with journalists, as he did over a Vogue photo shoot of Trudeau and his wife Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau.

Or critiques of Trudeau's availability to the media:

In 2018, when the Liberals announced tax incentives for the news industry, some journalists expressed concerns about what they might mean for journalistic independence.

He certainly wasn't above scolding the media.

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.

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. 

Which sparked its own backlash with some journalists.

Butts would also tangle with politicians. Conservative MP Erin O'Toole was a regular opponent.

So was Alberta's United Conservative Party Leader Jason Kenney.

Former Saskatchewan premier Brad Wall, as well, got into an exchange over his survey about pipeline politics.

Butts would also get involved in Twitter skirmishes with policy analysts. In February 2016, he debated with experts over the Liberals' ant-ISIS plan.

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.

Butts regularly employed the alt-right characterization, and he used it again to label those he felt were prejudiced against asylum seekers.

That led to this exchange with Toronto Sun editor emeritus and columnist Lorrie Goldstein:

Naturally, the federal Tories were constant target. Whether it was the previous Harper government:

Or the current Conservative party:

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.

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.


 

Corrections

  • 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

About the Author

Mark Gollom

Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

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