Could Sergio Moro bring down his second president?

Brazil’s political scene has become even more uncertain. But one thing is clear: getting rid of Sergio Moro will cost Jair Bolsonaro big time

In March 2016, the Federal Police recorded a phone conversation between then-President Dilma Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Federal marshals were tapping the phones of the latter, who was the subject of several criminal investigations. In the 95-second dialogue, Ms. Rousseff discussed Lula’s appointment as her Chief of Staff, a maneuver to grant the former president immunity while he negotiated a way out of Ms. Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings. Hours later, Sergio Moro — then a federal judge leading Operation Car Wash — illegally leaked the recording, triggering major protests across the country and essentially ending any possibility Ms. Rousseff had to avoid impeachment.[restricted]

Four years later, Mr. Moro could be the key factor in tipping the scales against another president. On Friday morning, he handed in his resignation from his role as Justice Minister, following the dismissal of Federal Police Chief Maurício Valeixo.

In a filibustering speech on Friday evening, Mr. Bolsonaro alleged that the outgoing Justice Minister had tried to negotiate with the president, wanting a seat on the Supreme Court in return for Mr. Valeixo’s removal. However, President Bolsonaro was the one who offered Mr. Moro the seat in May last year.

Mr. Moro said that President Jair Bolsonaro had tried, on numerous occasions, to interfere with federal probes and illegally obtain police reports of sealed investigations into members of his entourage.

Moreover, he claimed the government had published false information on Friday morning’s issue of the Federal Registry. The official gazette stated that Mr. Valeixo had resigned and that the publication had been signed by Mr. Moro — the outgoing Justice Minister claimed neither of these events were true.

The bombshell comes at the worst possible moment for President Bolsonaro. Economic expectations are dwindling fast, the Covid-19 death toll is rising continuously, and mainstream political actors are beginning to abandon the president. Now, by pushing anti-corruption poster boy Sergio Moro out of his administration, Mr. Bolsonaro could risk splitting his base and losing control over his political destiny.

Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso made an open call for Mr. Bolsonaro’s resignation, but according to one source from within the presidential palace, there is absolutely no chance of the president stepping down. “If Congress paralyzes the country during a pandemic just to oust him, so be it.”

Is impeachment a reality?

The conduct that Mr. Moro pinned on the president constitutes several impeachable offenses, according to legal experts. “If the president really did those things, he is jeopardizing the country’s internal security and showing a lack of decorum,” says Wellington Arruda, a public law professor.

By far the most serious accusation is that President Bolsonaro had intended to appoint a Federal Police Chief from whom he could “receive information about investigations.” As Federal Police probes are confidential, gaining access to them would be an obstruction of justice. Newspaper Estadão cited sources close to Mr. Moro in affirming that the ex-Justice Minister has proof of all of his allegations against the president, presumably by way of WhatsApp conversations.

But the path to Mr. Bolsonaro’s ousting is rather murky. He says he won’t resign — leaving two possible solutions: an impeachment process in Congress or an indictment request — for defrauding the Federal Register — from Prosecutor General Augusto Aras. But House Speaker Rodrigo Maia has so far not been inclined to initiate impeachment proceedings in the middle of a pandemic — and the prosecutor general has not bothered the president for most of his tenure. Whie Mr. Aras has asked the Supreme Court for permission to investigate the matter, his request leaves the door open to go after Mr. Moro — saying that the lack of evidence could qualify as a “defamatory allegation.”

Moreover, social isolation makes popular pressure much less felt — except for on social media. Ironically, Mr. Bolsonaro’s office is arguably being protected by the very quarantines he has been so adamantly against.

Other presidents have beaten unfavorable odds to stay in office. But it seems more and more likely that, at best, Jair Bolsonaro will become a lame duck president — only capable of dragging himself through his term.

What is Bolsonaro afraid of?

There are at least six ongoing investigations that are beginning to hit a little too close to home for the president:

  • Fake news. Congress and the Supreme Court are investigating the use of misinformation on social media as a tactic of political bullying — which has been the bread and butter of Mr. Bolsonaro’s online strategy. Member of Congress Lidice da Mata, who oversees congressional hearings on the matter, told The Brazilian Report that “there is strong evidence that [Congressman] Eduardo Bolsonaro and his brother, [Rio City Councilor] Carlos Bolsonaro, are involved in creating fake news and spreading hate campaigns.
  • Anti-democratic rallies. On Sunday, Mr. Bolsonaro delivered a speech at a quasi-putschist demonstration — the organization of which is now under investigation. The National Security Law forbids people from inciting acts against the democratic order.
  • Marielle Franco. While there is no evidence that Jair Bolsonaro or his sons have direct links to the March 2018 assassination of Rio de Janeiro City Councilor Marielle Franco, members of the Bolsonaro clan are connected to some of the suspects. And the president’s family is claiming that Rio de Janeiro Governor Wilson Witzel is using the investigation to destroy his reputation.
  • Money laundering. During his years as a Rio state lawmaker, Senator Flávio Bolsonaro is suspected of orchestrating a rudimentary — and frankly commonplace — corruption scheme, in which his staffers were forced to surrender part of their salaries to Mr. Bolsonaro. In some cases, employees would hand in over 90 percent of their paychecks. The scheme was allegedly operated by Fabrício Queiroz, a militia-linked ex-cop who served as Flávio Bolsonaro’s advisor.
  • Office of Crime. Flávio Bolsonaro is also believed to have links to a former crime boss killed by the police in February. Adriano da Nóbrega, a former cop, is identified as the head of a notorious Rio death squad known as the “Office of Crime,” a group made up of active and retired police officers who used their connections and access to firearms to carry out hired killings.
  • Dummy candidacies. Evidence seized by federal marshals from a Minas Gerais printing shop indicates that proceeds from a dummy candidate scheme were used to fund many campaigns, including Jair Bolsonaro’s.[/restricted]

By Gustavo Ribeiro

An award-winning journalist, Gustavo has extensive experience covering Brazilian politics and international affairs. He has been featured across Brazilian and French media outlets and founded The Brazilian Report in 2017. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science and Latin American studies from Panthéon-Sorbonne University in Paris.