A video of a controversial meeting between Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and members of his cabinet became public on Friday, fueling a political crisis that embroils the president just as the coronavirus pandemic grips the country.
Footage of the April 22 meeting that lasted more than two hours risks deepening an institutional crisis between the executive branch and the judiciary while leaving some cabinet members in a tough spot. On the other hand, it showed the strength of Economy Minister Paulo Guedes in the administration and may even please Bolsonaro’s most radical followers.
The video had been under seal as part of evidence presented by former Justice Minister Sergio Moro, who resigned last month accusing the president of seeking to interfere with police investigations, some of which potentially involve members of Bolsonaro’s family in Rio de Janeiro. The Supreme Court allowed an investigation into the matter, which is ongoing.
“I already tried to change people in our security in Rio de Janeiro officially but I wasn’t able to,” the president said in a crucial part of the video, which is riddled with crude language. “I’m not going to wait for them to screw over my whole family just for kicks, or my friends. Why can’t I change someone from security from the end of the line that belongs to our structure. He will be changed! If he can’t be changed, change his boss! Can’t change his boss? Change the minister!”
Bolsonaro’s words fueled multiple interpretations, including that he may have been requesting a change in Rio’s police chief for the protection of his family, as Moro claimed. In a different moment, the president also says that the federal police “do not give me information.”
Bolsonaro, who denies any wrongdoing, said the video’s release showed “one more farce broken down” and no indication of interference with the federal police.
The video also offered Brazilians an unfiltered view of their government’s inner workings while putting on display Bolsonaro’s shocking rhetoric — including obscenities and sexual references — and willingness to disparage his political enemies. He made incendiary remarks cursing the governors of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro states.
Some cabinet members were left in hot water after the video’s release. Education Minister Abraham Weintraub made disparaging comments about the Supreme Court, saying he would throw the justices in jail. Environment Minister Ricardo Salles suggested taking advantage of the media’s focus on the pandemic rather than the Amazon to “change all the rules and simplify them.”
In a statement published after the video’s release, Salles said he “always defended de-bureaucratizing and simplifying rules.” Weintraub did not respond to a request for comment.
The Brazilian real rose after the video’s release on bets that its contents are not going to “erode Bolsonaro’s 30% approval rate,” said Roberto Padovani, economist at BV.
Bolsonaro’s words have “an anti-systemic populist appeal” that may even provide a boost to his popularity among his most radical base, said Deysi Cioccari, a political scientist with the Pontifical Catholic University of Sao Paulo.
“But the video causes an institutional crisis,” she said. “A very strong institutional crisis is coming.”
Even though Bolsonaro’s disagreement with some cabinet members has forced the exit of three ministers since the pandemic began — Moro plus two health ministers — the president expresses full support for his economy minister in the video, saying he’s never had any problems with Paulo Guedes. That vote of confidence could ease investor worries about the economy minister’s fate.
Bolsonaro had initially requested that parts of the meeting that are not related to the probe remain private to protect national interests. Moro, on the other hand, wanted it to be released to the public in its entirety. Portions of the footage released on the Supreme Court’s website were redacted.
In his decision to unseal the video, Justice Celso de Mello said his judgement had been informed by the Watergate case that led to the resignation of U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1974. He said it was legitimate for the Court to review acts of the president especially when they have to do with “the Head of State’s supposed criminal practice.” He determined the video should be unsealed for the sake of transparency.
As part of the investigation, Mello asked the federal prosecutors to decide whether three requests from opposition lawmakers to have Bolsonaro testify and turn in his personal phone — along with the phone of his son Carlos — should be undertaken. There is no deadline for the prosecutor to respond. In a statement, Institutional Security Minister Augusto Heleno called any potential seizure order “unbelievable,” an insult to executive powers, and “a clear attempt to compromise the harmony among powers that could have unpredictable consequences for national stability.”
Bolsonaro later told journalists “no one is going to get my phone.”
The stakes are high for far-right president, who is facing political and economic crises on top of the catastrophic public health crisis. The country’s total case count topped 330,000 Friday, surpassing Russia to become the second hardest hit country, after only the U.S.
Bolsonaro’s popularity has declined during the outbreak, in part due to his refusal to adopt social distancing measures and promotion of the controversial anti-malarial drug chloroquine. Contrary to the president, 76% of Brazilians believe social distancing is the best way to prevent the spread of Covid-19, according to a recent poll by XP/Ipespe. And even though half of Brazilians think his administration is “bad” or “terrible”, polling suggests his support base is still quite robust: 25% evaluated the president’s performance positively.
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