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Brazil’s president: Corruption charge is ‘soap opera’

Mauricio Savarese and Sarah Dilorenzo
Associated Press

Sao Paulo — Brazil’s president dismissed corruption allegations against him as a “soap opera plot” Tuesday and sought to cast doubt on the motivations of the country’s top prosecutor a day after a scathing indictment was issued against the leader.

President Michel Temer is fighting to hold onto his job after Attorney General Rodrigo Janot filed an indictment with the Supreme Federal Tribunal on Monday. The charge sheet accuses Temer of corruption for allegedly accepting bribes from an executive at a major meatpacker in exchange for help influencing the decisions of state bodies.

The prosecutors “created a soap opera plot,” Temer said in a brief statement to reporters and allies, his first comments since the indictment was presented. “I say without fear of being wrong that the accusation is fiction.”

Relying on innuendo, Temer also implied that Janot himself might be involved in a kickback scheme. The president noted that a former aide to the prosecutor is making “millions” working with the law firm representing the company at the center of the accusations against Temer.

“Maybe the millions in fees received weren’t only for the trusted aide, but … I will not conjecture,” Temer said.

Janot’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment, and the president’s office did not respond to a request to elaborate.

Temer poured out a stream of adjectives to heap scorn on the accusations against him, calling them injurious, undignified, infamous, shaky, dangerous, irresponsible, frail and precarious.

Even for Brazilians virtually inured to revelations of corruption among their politicians, the accusations against Temer were shocking, allegedly occurring just this year, three years into the largest corruption investigation the country’s history, known as Operation Car Wash.

If the president is shown to have solicited bribes at the same time that the judiciary was jailing politicians nearly every week, it would reveal incredible audacity and dash hopes that the Car Wash probe would put fear into Brazil’s leaders and put an end to a culture of corruption.

Janot’s indictment had been widely expected and financial markets mostly met them with a shrug Tuesday. The benchmark Bovespa fell 0.8 percent, while Brazil’s real currency pulled back 0.5 percent against the dollar.

But the accusations themselves have roiled Brazilian politics since the details that underpin them began to emerge last month, raising questions about whether Temer will be able to finish out his term, which ends next year.

While politicians might be reeling, many Brazilians are finding the dark humor in their country’s turmoil. After Temer’s address, many took to Twitter to mock his assertion that he was proud to be president and didn’t “know how God put me here.” Many posted photos of things in strange places, like a cow on a roof or a horse on a balcony.

While Temer may have already lost in the court of public opinion — his approval rating stands at 7 percent — his fate rests with the lower house of Congress, which now must decide whether the charges move forward. If two-thirds of that chamber votes to accept the indictment, then the president will be suspended for up to 180 days while a trial is conducted. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, a Temer ally, would be president in the interim.

Many observers think Congress won’t force him out.

“Several senators and deputies are in the same boat as he is, being accused in the same way, and are trying — in a drowning embrace — to hold onto each other to protect themselves, to avoid prosecutions,” said Sonia Fleury, a political science professor at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas University in Rio de Janeiro.

If found guilty, Temer would face a $3 million fine and two to 12 years in prison.

Temer is also under investigation over allegations of obstruction of justice and criminal conspiracy, and Janot is expected to file those charges in the coming days.

The indictment itself was blistering in its assessment of Temer, saying he showed a total disregard for his office and that his actions, including secret meetings not on his official calendar, showed he was trying to cover up “criminal actions.”

Temer has denied the allegations and said he will not resign, but will fight the charges.

In fact, the charges give Temer an incentive to hang on to office for as long as possible, said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at state University of Rio de Janeiro. As a sitting president, Temer can be tried only by the Supreme Federal Tribunal, the country’s highest court.

If he left office, he could be tried in lower courts that might move faster and offer less deference.

“If Temer resigns this week, he could be in jail next week,” said Santoro.

Temer, who took over in May of last year after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and later removed from office, has the lowest approval rating of a Brazilian president since 1989.