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.