The accusations, both legal and political, against Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro have come in thick and fast: alleged interference in police affairs, trying to cover up his sons’ criminal problems, attempting to manipulate investigations against allies in congress and a shockingly irresponsible response to the coronavirus pandemic.
But which one will get him in most trouble remains to be seen.
On May 2, Sergio Moro, Bolsonaro’s former justice and public security minister, showed to federal police copies of WhatsApp messages he exchanged with the president. These appeared to confirm that Bolsonaro pressured Moro to remove Maurício Valeixo as the chief of federal police.
In one message, the president reportedly sent the minister a link to a news article discussing an investigation against political allies and added “another reason for the change.” Moro replied that that particular investigation was being overseen by the Supreme Court and not the federal police.
In another, Bolsonaro appeared to be pushing for a new head of police in Rio de Janeiro, where one of his sons is facing an investigation. “Moro, you get 27 police chiefs, and I get just one, in Rio de Janeiro,” read the message.
Moro also restated that Carla Zambelli, a federal deputy and ally of Bolsonaro, offered to appoint him to Brazil’s Supreme Court, should he accept to replace Valeixo.
Bolsonaro has since gone on the attack, denying he committed any crime and countering that Moro leaked classified reports to the press in breach of the country’s National Security Law, the Folha de São Paulo reported.
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When Bolsonaro named Moro as Justice Minister in November 2018, skeptics wondered how long the firebrand president and the crusading anti-corruption judge could co-exist. Seventeen months later, Bolsonaro is learning what many Brazilian politicians already knew: It’s not a good idea to be on Moro’s bad side.
Valeixo, whom Bolsonaro tried to dismiss as chief of federal police, has been Moro’s right-hand man for years, according to the BBC. He headed up the federal police in the southern state of Paraná when Moro was overseeing Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) there and was handpicked by Moro to follow him to Brasilia. This likely made Bolsonaro’s interference all the more personal for the former judge.
While the contents of Moro’s deposition were known beforehand, he provided damning evidence implicating the president and some of his allies.
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But Moro’s reputation is not what it once was. Revelations by The Intercept last year that he advised prosecutors in the case against former president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva are far from forgotten. Despite this, his testimony still carried weight.
“Sergio Moro’s deposition was more restrained than many expected. While it does not shed any new light on the allegations against Bolsonaro, it tightens the pressure on the president,” Robert Muggah, founder of the Igarapé Institute, a policy think-tank, told InSight Crime.
The Supreme Court has expanded the investigation to three more cabinet ministers, whom Moro declared had knowledge about the alleged attempts to interfere in police matters.
But this does not mean Bolsonaro is headed to a surefire criminal trial. For Matthew M. Taylor, an expert in Brazilian affairs at American University, a number of circumstances may prevent that for the time being.
“My sense is that this investigation isn’t likely to go much further. Although Moro clearly has some damaging and possibly incriminating evidence against Bolsonaro, there isn’t much that the courts can or will do,” Taylor told InSight Crime.
“So this evidence is really only going to become ammunition if there is an impeachment investigation,” he added.
If Bolsonaro does survive this current investigation, he’s not out of the woods yet. According to Muggah, there are at least three possible ways he could be ousted before the 2022 election: impeachment by congress for crimes of responsibility, conviction by the Supreme Court for common crimes, or ejected by the national electoral tribunal for alleged misconduct during the 2018 campaign.
Augusto Aras, Brazil’s Attorney General, is the only person who can charge the president with “common crimes” as opposed to “crimes of responsibility,” equivalent to “high crimes and misdemeanors” in the United States, which can be filed by any Brazilian citizen. In either case, the Chamber of Deputies would vote on beginning a criminal trial or impeachment hearings respectively.
But for Taylor, impeachment is also unlikely. “My sense is that, although pressure is building, this pressure cooker is not yet ready to explode. The only person who can get the impeachment train rolling is (President of the Chamber of Deputies) Rodrigo Maia, and although he has received many impeachment petitions, he doesn’t yet seem ready to make this move,” he said.
And while his handling of the coronavirus response has been disgraceful, the pandemic may actually help him. "Historically, impeachment has happened only when there was a lot of pressure from the streets. This cannot build in the same ways in an age of social distancing," commented Taylor.
So far, Bolsonaro’s defense strategy seems familiar. He has painted journalists as liars, Moro as a criminal, and as his poll numbers are dwindling, he has appealed to an increasingly fanatical fanbase.
The coming weeks will tell if Bolsonaro can simply bluster his way out of this.