Corruption charge increases pressure on Brazil president
In a scathing 64-page indictment, Brazil's top prosecutor described a scheming, arrogant and corrupt President Michel Temer who lined his pockets with illegal money while showing little regard for the office he represented.
Whether Attorney General Rodrigo Janot's formal accusation late Monday pressures Temer to consider resigning - he has insisted he won't and denied any wrongdoing - could depend on the reaction of lawmakers and the markets in Latin America's largest nation in the days and weeks ahead.
When Janot opened the investigation last month, the markets tanked and Brazil's real currency fell sharply against the US dollar. Lawmakers, particularly members of Temer's coalition, then spent several weeks soul-searching about whether to stick with the president or bail on him because of fears that association could be toxic for election chances next year. Now they have much more to consider.
"There will be a tug-of-war between the executive branch and society for support in Congress," said Fabiano Angelico, a Sao Paulo-based consultant, adding that ultimately lawmakers "want to get re-elected."
The corruption accusation against Temer for allegedly taking bribes gives him the dubious distinction of being the first sitting president in Latin America's largest nation to face criminal charges. It's the latest salvo in an intensifying showdown between Temer and justice officials who are building a corruption case that reaches to the highest levels.
The office of the presidency said it would not comment Monday night.
The case now goes to the lower Chamber of Deputies in Congress, which must decide whether it has merit. If two-thirds of the legislature decides that it does, then the president will be suspended for up to 180 days while a trial is conducted. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, an ally of Temer, would be president in the interim.
In his decision, Janot said that at some point between March and April of this year Temer took a bribe of around US$150,000 offered by Joesly Batista, former chairman of meatpacking giant JBS.
Janot's investigation into Temer was looking into corruption, obstruction of justice and being part of a criminal organisation. A recording emerged that apparently captured Temer, in a late-night conversation with Batista earlier this year, endorsing hush money to former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a former Temer ally who is serving a 15-year sentence for corruption. Batista reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
Janot's decision to put forward only the corruption charge may be a strategy to force the Chamber of Deputies to first deal with it before having to consider the other allegations.
The accusation comes with a blistering assessment of Temer and his actions as Brazil's top leader. Janot said bribes to Temer could have reached about US$12 million over nine months, and that Temer showed a total disregard for the office.
"The circumstances of this meeting (with Batista) - at night and without any register in the official schedule of the president of the Republic - reveal the intent of not leaving traces of the criminal actions already taken," wrote Janot.
Janot said the "spurious scheme" had been going on for a few years and Temer had "middlemen to receive bribes."
He wrote that Temer should pay US$3 million in damages.
Earlier Monday, Temer sought to show that his government was conducting business as usual, defiantly saying he wasn't going anywhere in his first comments since returning from a trip to Russia and Norway last week.
"Nothing will destroy us. Not me and not our ministers," he said during the ceremonial signing of a bill in the capital of Brasilia.
Despite the optimism, Temer is facing risks to his mandate on several fronts, from tanking popularity to numerous calls, including from heavyweight politicians, for him to step down.
His trip last week to Russia and Norway ended up underscoring the president's problems and Brazil's diminished stature overseas.
Few people showed up at the reception at Brazil's embassy in Moscow, no top Norwegian officials welcomed Temer at Oslo's airport and the country's prime minister, Erna Solberg, gave Temer a public lecture about the colossal "Car Wash" investigation that has upended Brazilian politics and could even jail Temer and several of his Cabinet ministers.
Launched in March 2014, the investigation into billions of dollars in inflated construction contracts and kickbacks to politicians has landed dozens of the country's elite in jail.
Temer, who took over in May of last year after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and later removed from office, has the lowest approval rating of a president since 1989.
The Datafolha polling institute showed over the weekend that just 7 per cent of those questioned approved of Temer's administration, the worst since the country was embroiled in a crisis of hyperinflation on the watch of President Jose Sarney.
Even stalwart allies have begun to abandon Temer.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who initially supported Temer and is a key leader of the junior coalition party, said in an article published by daily Folha de S. Paulo on Monday that the president could end the crisis by ushering in new elections sooner than the end of his mandate, which goes through 2018.
"I plead with the president to meditate over the opportunity of such a gesture of greatness," said Cardoso.