On Thursday, April 23, the rumor was already spreading that Jair Bolsonaro’s justice minister, Sergio Moro, might be leaving. At that time, the rumors were widely labeled “fake news” by Bolsonaro’s supporters. On Friday morning, Moro announced an 11 AM press conference where he would reveal his decision. Moro had apparently been taken by surprise when a decree published that morning made official that the head of the federal police, Maurício Valeixo, who had been appointed by Moro himself, was out of a job. Moreover, the decree bore Sergio Moro’s signature.
Moro would not be the first minister to leave Bolsonaro’s government. The popular Health Minister Luiz Henrique Mandetta had been fired just the week before, despite a 76% approval rating. But Mandetta had been a new face to the public, unknown to most Brazilians before the pandemic. The justice minister, however, was the well-known judge who had lead the Operação Lava Jato corruption investigation that had put many high-up politicians and businessmen in jail — the largest such investigation in the nation’s history. Especially on the right, he was considered a national hero. Moro was the face of the anti-corruption wave on which Bolsonaro had surfed to power.
The revelation that Sergio Moro would leave the government came as a shockwave, despite being expected. Some allies of Bolsonaro compared it to the leaked recording of Michel Temer, where the former president apparently was asking for hush money to be paid to keep a corruption scheme from investigators’ eyes. Similar to Temer after that scandal, Bolsonaro might become a political “zombie” with no real power.
The justice minister motivated his decision to resign by claiming that Bolsonaro had wanted to interfere politically in the federal police’s operation by appointing a police chief close to him, from whom he could receive intelligence reports on ongoing investigations — in particular, those of his family and political allies.
Bolsonaro’s son Flávio is currently under investigation for having diverted funds from his staff during the period when he was a state assemblyman in Rio de Janeiro. He is also accused of having laundered the money through a coffeeshop owned by him and associates, as well as having provided funds to a paramilitary group.
Another of Bolsonaro’s sons, Carlos, is being investigated for allegedly spearheading a group distributing fake news in a coordinated and systematic manner in favor of the president — often called the “Cabinet of Hate” in the media.
Moreover, Moro accused the president of falsifying his signature on the decree that announced the resignation of Maurício Valeixo, the head of the federal police. The decree said that Valeixo had asked to resign. Moro said that he had not signed the resignation request, neither had Valeixo asked to resign. Later in the day, the decree was republished with Moro’s name removed.
Bolsonaro shoots back
Soon after Sergio Moro’s press conference, President Bolsonaro announced on Twitter that he would hold his own press conference at five o’clock that afternoon, where he would “reestablish the truth” about Moro’s and the police chief’s resignations.
At the announced time, Bolsonaro took to the stage. In a 45-minute long speech, he attempted to build a sympathetic image of himself by entering into a variety of topics, many of them not directly related to Moro leaving the government: topics such as how he had turned off the pool heater at the presidential palace to save tax payers’ money, to how Moro had ignored him when they met for the first time at an airport in Brasília in 2017. Except for the last minutes, the speech seemed to be largely improvised.
In the end, Bolsonaro arrived at what he wanted to say: that there had been no political interference. But he also said in the speech that, yes, he wanted a police chief with whom he could have conversations about how investigations were going, arguing that there was nothing wrong with that, as it was within his prerogative as president to put whoever he wanted at the helm of the federal police.
Bolsonaro also claimed that Moro had been more focused on investigating the murder of Marielle than the attempted murder of the president on the campaign trail, when he was stabbed by man called Adélio Bispo de Oliveira who was quickly apprehended. The police concluded at the time that the stabber was a deranged loner who took the opportunity to attack Bolsonaro while he was unprotected in the middle of a crowd. Bolsonaro, however, implied that the action was planned by a group of people, a conspiracy theory spread by some of his supporters.
Moreover, the president claimed that Moro had said that he would accept Bolsonaro switching police chief, as long as Moro was guaranteed the seat that will be vacant at the Supreme Court in November, when Judge Celso de Mello will be forced to retire due to old age. When Bolsonaro’s press conference ended, Moro wrote on Twitter that the claim was untrue. Moro provided Jornal Nacional — Brazil’s most-watched nightly news program — with screenshots from his phone of WhatsApp conversations between him and Bolsonaro, as well as between him and Carla Zambelli, a congressional ally of Bolsonaro.
In the message exchange between Moro and Bolsonaro, the latter sent a link to an article by the online publication O Antagonista where it said that “10 to 12” congressional allies of Bolsonaro were being investigated by the federal police. Bolsonaro then wrote: “Another motive for the switch” — referring to the switch of command at the federal police.
In the message with Zambelli, she asked Moro to “please” approve Bolsonaro’s choice for the federal police and accept the Supreme Court seat that would be vacant in November. Moro answered that he is “not for sale.”
In justifying his legal right to choose whoever he wants as head of the federal police, Bolsonaro said that he already had regular conversations with the heads of many organs, such as the Brazilian intelligence agency (Abin), where they provided him with information on ongoing operations.
The head of Abin, Alexandre Ramagem, had been with the federal police since 2005, until he became the head of Bolsonaro’s security detail in 2018 after the then-presidential candidate was stabbed. Ramagem was a staunch supporter of Bolsonaro during his campaign and became head of Abin after Bolsonaro took office.
The very same man, the 47-year old Alexandre Ramagem, was soon after the press conference on Friday tapped to be the new chief of the federal police.
The question now is how Sergio Moro’s resignation will affect Bolsonaro’s political standing, especially within his own base of support. His maneuvering ability was already limited before the justice minister left, being largely isolated in Congress due to his confrontational attitude towards anyone who is seen as contradicting him.
The president made his popular former health minister an enemy because the minister would not support Bolsonaro’s “vertical isolation” strategy (let the old stay home, everyone else back to work), preferring instead to base the Ministry of Health’s recommendations on technical expertise. The president’s unscientific approach to the coronavirus crisis was another of Moro’s complaints. On the same grounds, Bolsonaro has made enemies of many governors, especially those of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.
Many are calling for Bolsonaro to renounce to save the country from another excruciating impeachment process. “Save us from, in addition to the coronavirus, a long impeachment process,” tweeted former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso.
Opinions are divided among Bolsonaro’s followers. For many of those who voted for Bolsonaro because of his anti-corruption talk, Moro is a hero and his word comes first. For them, Bolsonaro has crossed the line. The online news publication O Antagonista, largely supportive of Bolsonaro until recently, called for the president to renounce.
Other Bolsonaro supporters are calling Sergio Moro a communist who has now shown his real face. Then there are those who lament Moro’s decision to resign, but continue to support the president in his campaign against leftism and ex-President Lula da Silva’s Partido dos Trabalhadores.
In the coming days, we will see how the movie continues. Will Moro be simply another minister who disappeared, or will this be the event that marked the downfall of Jair Bolsonaro?
Published on April 26, 2020.