RIO DE JANEIRO — Brazil's government plunged into disarray Friday after Justice Minister Sérgio Moro, who became popular as a crusader against corruption, resigned and alleged political interference in the federal police force.
His resignation was prompted by President Jair Bolsonaro’s removal of the federal police’s chief.
Later in the afternoon, Bolsonaro sought to show a united front, speaking on national television flanked by all his remaining ministers. As Bolsonaro began a 45-minute speech defending his decisions, many Brazilians in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo and other cities leaned out their windows to bang pots and pans in protest.
The ousted federal police general director, Maurício Valeixo, had worked closely with Moro in the sprawling Car Wash corruption probe until the end of 2018 and followed him when Moro joined Bolsonaro’s new administration. The graft investigation ensnared dozens of politicians and businessmen throughout Latin America, including former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and transformed Moro into a folk hero.
Moro told reporters he warned Bolsonaro on Thursday that removing the head of the federal police without cause would amount to interference. Bolsonaro did so anyway, without consulting Moro, the minister said.
“The president expressly told me more than once that he wanted someone with whom he has personal contact, someone he could call, get information from, get intelligence reports, whether from a director or a superintendent,” Moro said. “It is really not the federal police’s role to provide that information. Investigations have to be preserved.”
Brazil's prosecutor general, Augusto Aras, asked the Supreme Court to open an investigation into Moro's allegations.
Bolsonaro, in his afternoon address, denied wanting to know about investigations underway, but did not address the accusation he wanted a successor who would share information.
He said it is the president’s right to replace the federal police’s chief. “I don’t have to ask anyone’s permission,” Bolsonaro said.
Brazil’s benchmark stock index plunged on the news, and the currency weakened against the dollar to a record low amid fresh concerns about the uncertainty of Bolsonaro’s governance, said Thiago de Aragão, director of strategy for political consultancy Arko Advice, who spoke with foreign investors after the announcement.
“The general director could have been changed as long as there was a consistent cause. There was not a consistent cause," Moro said. “Political interference that could create inappropriate relationships between the general director or superintendents and the president is something I can't agree with.”
Bolsonaro, a far-right politician, said he sought to discuss Valeixo's successor with Moro, but the justice minister insisted on choosing. “Why should it be his and not mine?” the president asked during the news conference.
Moro said earlier Friday that Bolsonaro had promised him a free hand in choosing his directors.
Moro, who is hailed by many Brazilians while seen by others as an anti-left zealot, was also key in the process that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff in 2016. Several of the Car Wash investigations in the southern city of Curitiba involved politicians linked to that administration. He left the court in Nov. 2018 after Bolsonaro’s invitation to join his administration.
Bolsonaro, who was elected in large part due to his law-and-order platform, said in November that he wouldn’t have reached the presidency had Moro not “fulfilled his mission” as a judge.
“Moro’s resignation is a seismic event in Brazilian politics,” Ilona Szabó, executive director of the Igarapé Institute that’s focused on public security, said in an emailed statement. “His departure signals a dangerous new phase for Brazil. It amounts to a 'coup’ against democracy because the autonomy of the federal police (and rule of law) is an essential foundation for democratic governance.”
Bolsonaro has bounced from crisis to crisis during his administration, from his attacks on the media to his dismissal of last year’s raging Amazon fires and dust-ups with foreign leaders. More recently, he has drawn outrage with claims that the coronavirus is “a little flu” and by scoffing at international health experts’ recommendation for stay-at-home measures. Last week, Bolsonaro fired his health minister, who had supported such measures that most Brazilian governors adopted.
Throughout it all, Moro’s place in the Cabinet helped secure the administration’s base of support and the appearance of respect for rule of law. Moro cast doubt on that reputation on Friday, saying that the claim by the presidency that Valeixo had tendered his own resignation were untrue.
The former judge was Bolsonaro’s most widely known and popular Cabinet minister, with approval ratings considerably higher than the president’s. Moro has often been cited as a contender for higher office, whether as a Supreme Court justice,
“My impression is that Moro's departure and, most importantly, the way he is leaving, constitutes the most dire political crisis of the Bolsonaro government,” Paulo Calmon, a political science professor at the University of Brasilia, said in a text message. “It deepens his isolation."
Crime has plunged during Bolsonaro's tenure, which Moro celebrated as proof of his ministry's efforts and those of Valeixo himself. He conceded the improvement was also due local governments, and represented the intensification of a trend that began in 2018.
Since Moro became minister in January 2019, however, he has had difficulties with Bolsonaro and with politicians in Brasilia, the capital.
In recent days, Bolsonaro had called for Moro to reopen Brazil’s borders with Paraguay and Uruguay during the pandemic, as the Brazilian leader has repeatedly said he wants economic activity to resume, but the minister did not agree.
Associated Press writers Diane Jeantet and David Biller reported this story in Rio de Janeiro and AP writer Mauricio Savarese reported from Sao Paulo.
Diane Jeantet, David Biller And Mauricio Savarese, The Associated Press