If a global pandemic and a mounting economic crisis weren’t enough, Brazil now faces a political crisis. Last Friday (April 24), Sérgio Moro, the former judge in the Car Wash anticorruption operation who had become Minister of Justice in the administration of far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, resigned his ministerial post and accused President Bolsonaro of multiple improprieties having to do with apparent interference with ongoing federal criminal investigations. In particular, Moro stated that Bolsonaro fired the head of the Federal Police, Maurício Valexio, without Moro’s necessary approval (and, indeed, had forged Moro’s electronic signature on the dismissal papers), because—according to Moro—Bolsonaro “was concerned about investigations underway in the Federal Supreme Court,” which many interpreted as an allusion to ongoing investigations into corruption allegations against President Bolsonaro’s sons. This was not the first time President Bolsonaro had meddled in the Ministry of Justice—notwithstanding his promise that Moro would have full autonomy—but the firing of Valexio seems to have been the final straw for Moro. In his resignation speech, Moro emphasized his reluctance to resign in the midst of a public health crisis, but declared that Bolsonaro’s actions were beyond the pale. “I could not,” Moro explained, “set aside my commitment to the rule of law.”
It’s hard to exaggerate the significance of Moro’s resignation for Brazilian politics, and for the future of Brazil’s fight against systemic corruption. The resignation of a senior minister on grounds of alleged presidential interference in an investigation would be an enormous scandal under any circumstances, but to appreciate the significance of Moro’s resignation from the Bolsonaro government, one must know a bit more about the larger context. Moro became a nationally prominent figure due to his role in presiding over some of the most high-profile investigations and trials in the Car Wash anticorruption investigation, including the trial of former President Lula of the left-wing Worker’s Party (the PT); the Car Wash investigation also led to the impeachment and removal of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, though Judge Moro was not directly involved in that political process. Lula’s conviction meant that he was disqualified from running in the 2019 presidential election, which many observers believe he would have won. Thus, while Judge Moro was heralded as a hero by many Brazilian’s for his role in the Car Wash Operation, others—especially those affiliated with the PT—accused him of political bias against the left.
Lula’s disqualification, and the taint of corruption that attached to the PT due to the Car Wash Operation, created a window of opportunity for Jair Bolsonaro in the 2019 presidential election. Bolsonaro, a far-right politician who had long been considered a marginal figure at best, ran on an anticorruption platform, claiming that only he could clean up the corrupt Brazilian political system. This appeal worked: Many Brazilian voters who did not share Bolsonaro’s radical right-wing ideology nevertheless concluded that they couldn’t stomach another presidency with the “corrupt” PT. After Bolsonaro won the election, he appointed Moro to be his Minister of Justice—a move that many saw as intended to bolster Bolsonaro’s claims to be committed to ushering in a new era of anticorruption reform in Brazil. Bolsonaro made explicit and extravagant promises that Moro—an anticorruption hero in the eyes of most Brazilians, including many skeptical of Bolsonaro himself—would have a free hand to run his Ministry without presidential interference. But Moro’s acceptance of a senior position in the Bolsonaro administration drew criticism from the Brazilian left, a line of criticism that only intensified after a series of media stories last summer that suggested, based on leaked text messages, that while Moro was the presiding Judge in the Car Wash cases he may have inappropriately coordinated with prosecutors or exhibited bias against Lula. While some disputed this interpretation of the text messages, they fed into the narrative that Moro was partisan and Car Wash was a witch hunt. Even some of Moro’s supporters expressed concern about the content of the leaks, and about his acceptance of a position in the Bolsonaro government.
Moro’s resignation is a shocking new twist to this ongoing drama. Until recently, he was condemned by the far-left as Lula’s jailer; now he’s condemned by the far-right as a traitor. With some Brazilians, he’s still a popular anticorruption standard-bearer. It’s understandable that there’s considerable speculation both about Moro’s future and about the immediate ramifications of his dramatic resignation for the Bolsonaro government. There are questions about the longer-term impact of these developments on Brazilian politics and the future of anticorruption reform.
How should the various actors in this drama handle the situation going forward? In the remainder of this post, I advance some tentative advice for three principal players—the Brazilian Congress, the investigative agencies (especially the Federal Police), and Moro himself. How these players handle this volatile situation over the coming weeks and months will have far-reaching implications for Brazilian politics and institutions.
- Congress. Unsurprisingly, talk of further investigations into Moro’s allegations, and possible impeachment of President Bolsonaro, began immediately after Moro’s press conference (see, for example, here, here, and here). Various members of Congress—almost all from the left—have filed papers to open investigations into Moro’s allegations. The allegations of misconduct that Moro levelled against Bolsonaro are indeed serious impeachable offenses, and a thorough investigation is warranted. That said, Congress should take care that the investigation into Moro’s allegations is professionalized and evidence-based. The 2016 impeachment of President Dilma is a cautionary tale. At times called a “coup” by the Brazilian left, the Dilma impeachment process appears to have been overly hasty and politicized, and the removal more an act of political retaliation against an unpopular president than a sober judgment based on solid evidence of wrongdoing. If, only a few years later, another Brazilian president is removed following a process that looks more like a partisan circus than a sober assessment of law and facts, the credibility of Brazilian institutions will be further weakened. Thus members of Congress, even Bolsonaro’s staunchest opponents, should do what they can to keep the process professional, and to proceed cautiously and deliberately, building a strong case and abiding by the letter of the law. While there will undoubtedly be some who interpret any congressional investigation as partisan, if Congress keeps things professional and evidence-based, it will help avoid making impeachment as a “go-to” move in times of political turmoil.
- Federal Police and other investigative agencies. If Moro’s allegations are true, they expose a serious weakness in Brazilian law enforcement’s ability to independently investigate wrongdoing by senior government leaders and their families—in this case, Bolsonaro and his sons. Fortunately, there’s already been some pushback from within Brazilian legal institutions against this interference. Earlier this week, a Supreme Court judge ruled that the same officers who had been investigating Bolsonaro’s sons should continue with their investigation, and the judge also slowed Bolsonaro’s nomination of a replacement Police Chief (a Bolsonaro family friend); Bolsonaro subsequently retracted the nomination entirely. Beyond this, the Federal Police and other law enforcement agencies should do what they can to maintain their autonomy and professionalism, producing high-quality investigative reports backed by carefully documented evidence. Additionally, various agencies—including the Federal Police, state police, the public prosecutor’s office, and the comptroller general should develop plans to work both cooperatively and in parallel on cases where their jurisdiction overlaps. This “institutional multiplicity” might create some extra bureaucracy, but it also helps ensure that investigations aren’t left undone if one specific institution faces roadblocks or political interference. This strategy may be all the more important as agencies begin investigating Moro’s claims, especially if the Federal Police are vulnerable to future firings and personnel changes.
- Moro himself. Some have speculated that Moro—who had higher approval ratings than Bolsonaro at the beginning of the coronavirus epidemic—might run for president in 2022. He should not. Moro’s critics, especially on the left but now on the far right as well, accuse him of being opportunistic snake, who joined the Bolsonaro administration when he thought it might be a stepping stone to a Supreme Court seat and then jumped ship when the Bolsonaro government’s popularity (and the Brazilian economy) started to crash after the coronavirus pandemic set in. This is not necessarily fair—it is possible, as Moro himself claimed, that he resigned because Bolsonaro broke his promise not to interfere with politically sensitive investigations. But despite his popularity in opinion polls, Moro needs to understand that he’s lost a lot of credibility with the anticorruption community and important segments of the Brazilian public. Moro could do more good working with civil society and government to improve Brazil’s long-term corruption-fighting prospects. Moro likely has good ideas about concrete ways to protect judges from political interference, how to go about establishing independent investigation tribunals or cross-agency partnerships, and the like. Putting this accumulated knowledge to use for the good of the country would send a signal that he is the corruption fighter he claims to be. He’s not likely to win the presidency, and a failed presidential run would only marginalize his voice, and contribute to the cynical view that anticorruption is just another political platform.