The Resignation of Brazilian Justice Minister Sérgio Moro: Reflections on How Key Players Should Handle This Political Crisis

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

5 thoughts on “The Resignation of Brazilian Justice Minister Sérgio Moro: Reflections on How Key Players Should Handle This Political Crisis

  1. Hi Jessie! Thank you very much for clarifying the essential aspects of the recent resignation of Sergio Moro from the Brazilian Ministry of Justice. I would like to contribute to the discussion by addressing some questions related to the general picture of the government’s anticorruption efforts in Brazil and to each one of your suggestions.

    First, Bolsonaro has never taken any anticorruption measure during his 28 years (between 1991-2019) as a member of the Brazilian Congress. It is true that he did not engage in the large corruption schemes that affected the country in such period. However, it is difficult to know if this happened for honesty or for lack of opportunity. Indeed, the recent investigation about the activities of one of his sons indicates that he and his family apparently profited from small corruption schemes usually organized by less significant Brazilian politicians, by means of the embezzlement of the incomes paid by the treasury to assistants who do not in fact work and were formally appointed with this specific unlawful purpose. During the 2018 elections, Bolsonaro took advantage of Car Wash Operation to adopt an anticorruption discourse. He strongly opposed the Brazilian model of systemic corruption disclosed by Car Wash, through which the President obtains political support in the Congress by offering to political parties the possibility of nomination of high-level public officials, who are charged with the task of collecting bribes from corporations interested in public procurements and contracts in their respective areas. After having taken office, Bolsonaro really rejected this pattern. At least their ministers were predominantly chosen on the basis of competence or ideology. Considering the practices of the past Brazilian governments, this was a remarkable historical hallmark. Nevertheless, other anticorruption steps have not advanced. The main example of this state of affairs is the anticrime bill designed by Sergio Moro in the Ministry of Justice, which was undermined in the Congress, particularly in relation to its anticorruption dispositions, and there was not any effort from the President to prevent or mitigate the damages. The impression is that Sergio Moro was appointed as Minister and was maintained in this position only to create an appearance of integrity and of anticorruption commitment in favor of the Bolsonaro administration. The resignation of Sergio Moro not only harms the government’s image in this respect, but also seems to lead the Bolsonaro administration to walk in the conventional track of the Brazilian model of systemic corruption. In effect, Moro’s accusations against Bolsonaro, as well as the consequent threat of an impeachment process and of a criminal proceeding whose initiation, continuity, and result depend on congressional decisions, according to the Brazilian legal system, have reinforced the President’s movements towards a coalition with traditional political parties. Media reports have emphasized negotiations involving the nomination of high-level public officials in exchange for political support in the Congress, as always occurred in Brazil, with deplorable consequences. Thus, the only anticorruption improvement in the Bolsonaro administration appears to be in the imminence of reversion.

    Second, I would like to make some comments about your three suggestions, which are quite interesting. In relation to the first one, I think that the impeachment process in the Brazilian Congress is more political than legal or technical. Brazilian congressmen and congresswomen do not consider facts and evidence as jurors or judges. They attribute heavier weight to the President’s popularity and political power to make decisions in each situation. Regarding your second recommendation, the resignation of Sergio Moro clearly demonstrates that Brazilian anticorruption institutions and agencies are subject to political interference. This derives from their institutional design and from historical political practices. Efforts towards autonomy and independence have mostly been taken at the individual level, even within the judiciary. Moro himself is an example of judge that stood out due to his own personal endeavors, even working in a judicial structure characterized by rigid hierarchy, headed by judges who were politically appointed, many times on the basis of the negotiations between the President, members of the Congress, and their political parties. Finally, concerning your third advice, I believe that the speculations that Moro might run for President in the next elections are unfounded. They just seem to reflect the fear from political outsiders that affects traditional Brazilian politicians. In fact, Moro is not a politician; his profile is technical. My impression is that he has never felt comfortable even as Minister of Justice, a political position. Due to Car Wash Operation, politicians in almost all Brazilian political parties do not like him. This would make his work as President unfeasible.

    • Hi Rodrigo,
      Thanks so much for such a thoughtful reply! Briefly:

      1) I completely agree with you on point 1 — I even wrote about this in some posts before and immediately after the 2018 election and when the pacote anticrime bill was released, warning that we should be skeptical of his claim that he wasn’t corrupt (yet) and riding on the coattails of Moro. I was hoping for the weakening of the centrão as well, but if anything his interactions with them and Maia seem to reinforce the Centrão’s power now and the power of making these cheap deals.

      2) I’m glad you mentioned the first point about impeachment — I hear you that the impeachment process is more political than technical… which is why I thought it’d be worth explicitly mentioning that this is *not* the way it should be. Brazil can do better. On the second point, while I agree that these institutions are subject to political interference, I think that creating more or increasing overlap could increase the probability that someone responsible and with good judgement could get their hands on a case. Put differently, concentrating all investigative power in just one institution means that just one power-hungry person could interfere, while dispersing across many means they would have to coordinate across institutions. I’m curious to hear your reaction to this given your past professional experiences. Lastly, I think he seem uncomfortable (and certainly unsuited) for the position… but I’ve tried to stop predicting what will happen in Brazilian politics now :).
      Thanks for writing!

  2. Good summary. I think that both of you give too much credit to Moro. If he were only “technical” and non-political, he would not have accepted the MJ position. I can only hope that he has learned a lesson by working under Bolsonaro. He cannot go back to being a judge, so my bet is that he is a candidate in 2022. It will be interesting to see if his obstruction accusations go anywhere, but so far the street is not in favor of JB’s fenestration. Of course, this may change if Brazil hits 2000 Covid19 deaths per day either in May or June. Guedes continues to be the wild card but with Centrao negotiations, he may also cash in his remaining chips.

    • Thanks for writing! I too agree that he cannot go back to being a judge (immediately) and he has blown his shot at STF nomination this year. I definitely think that Moro is more than just a technocrat, hence why I mention Bolsonaro’s waning popularity and how now may have been a good time for him to “jump ship” on JB’s sinking regime. The pessimistic part of me thinks he’s playing the long game for a 2022 run, but I think it’s too early to tell and the coming testimonies/investigations will give a lot of information on how the public perceives them both, as well as who the possible constituents Moro could draw from. Even if he were willing to run in 2022, I have a hard time imagining which coalition he could piece together since the left still hates him and since Bolsonaro supporters are calling him a traitor. I’m skeptical those in the center would vote for him over a career politician.

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