Brazilian government in confusion after justice minister resigns

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Brazil’s government has been plunged into turmoil after the resignation of one of Jair Bolsonaro’s most powerful ministers sparked protests, calls for the president’s impeachment and an investigation into claims he had improperly interfered in the country’s federal police.

In a rambling televised address late on Friday, Brazil’s embattled president denied claims from his outgoing justice minister Sérgio Moro that he had sought to appoint a new federal police chief in order to gain access to secret intelligence reports – for reasons that remain murky.

“Sorry Mr Minister, you won’t make a liar of me,” Bolsonaro declared, flanked by an almost entirely male group of backers, including his politician son Eduardo.

Moro’s bombshell allegations sparked pot-banging protests and an immediate outcry among Brazil’s political class, with Brazil’s prosecutor-general Augusto Aras requesting supreme court permission to launch an investigation.

“Moro’s testimony … constitutes strong evidence for an impeachment process,” tweeted Flávio Dino, the leftist governor of the northeastern state of Maranhão.

Senator Simone Tebet, head of the Senate’s Constitution, Justice and Citizenship committee, tweeted that, if proven, the accusations represented a “crime of responsibility” – the same impeachable offence under which leftist president Dilma Rousseff was controversially ousted in 2016.

Moro – who became a hero to conservative Brazilians for jailing the rich and powerful during a sweeping graft investigation called Operation Car Wash – alleged Bolsonaro had sacked the head of Brazil’s federal police – its answer to the FBI – in order to replace him with someone prepared to share secret intelligence reports.

“He wanted someone he had personal contact with, who he could call, gather information from [and] collect intelligence reports from,” Moro said.

Amid a looming coronavirus crisis, and just a week after Bolsonaro sacked his popular health minister, the explosive accusations left many wondering how long Bolsonaro’s beleaguered government could survive.

“The president is digging his own grave. He should resign [and] save us from a long impeachment process,” tweeted Brazil’s former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso.

The Folha de São Paulo newspaper reported that military officers who form an important bloc in Bolsonaro’s cabinet were considering abandoning the government – a potentially devastating blow for the president, a former army captain.

Speculation has been rife over Bolsonaro’s possible motives for replacing Maurício Valeixo, the head of the country’s federal police.

A report in one major newspaper, the Correio Braziliense, claimed that the move was in part prompted by a federal police investigation into fake news attacks on the Congress and supreme court that was focusing on the president’s own son, Carlos Bolsonaro.

Bolsonaro denied those suggestions on Friday afternoon. “The insinuations that I wanted to know about ongoing investigations are not true,” he said, claiming there was nothing wrong with his wanting to be in regular contact with the new federal police chief.

Moro’s exit has dismayed even Bolsonaro voters, many of whom were already shaken by his dismissive attitude towards the coronavirus pandemic. Brazil now has nearly 53,000 confirmed cases and 3,670 deaths.

As a judge, Moro led the “Car Wash” corruption investigation and jailed former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – removing Bolsonaro’s main rival in the 2018 election.

Moro has remained popular even when his role in the corruption probe was discredited by leaked documents that suggested he had acted improperly – claims he denies.

Losing such a popular minister is a major blow to Bolsonaro.

“Bolsonaro faces the most decisive moment in his chaotic first term,” said Diego Escosteguy, editor of political news-site Vortex.

But Escosteguy cautioned that Congress would still need to approve any impeachment process – and was only likely to do so after mass demonstrations, as happened before Rousseff was controversially ousted.

“Ironically, social distancing is Bolsonaro’s ally right now,” Escosteguy said.