BRASÍLIA — Brazil’s top prosecutor charged President Michel Temer with bribery on Monday, but the embattled conservative leader vowed to fight on.
The bribery charge filed by Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot swept Temer into the forefront of a giant graft scandal that has engulfed Latin America’s biggest country over the last three years.
Although several past Brazilian presidents and scores of other politicians are currently being probed for corruption, Temer is the first leader in the country’s history to face criminal charges while still in office.
Temer acted "in violation of his duties to the state and to society," Janot wrote, citing "abundant" proof that the president received bribe money.
For Temer to go on trial, the lower house of Congress must first approve Janot’s charge by a two-thirds majority. Temer would then be suspended for six months for the trial.
Janot is also probing Temer for alleged obstruction of justice and membership of a criminal group. He is expected to file those charges at a later date, guaranteeing a sustained legal assault.
However, Temer’s aides say they are confident he has sufficient support in Congress to get the charges thrown out. In his first comments since returning from a trip to Russia and Norway, he said earlier on Monday that he had no intention of stepping down.
"There is no plan B," he said at a ceremony to sign a new bill in the capital Brasilia. "Nothing will destroy us -- not me and not our ministers."
Single digit support
Temer’s latest approval ratings are just seven percent, lower than his deeply unpopular leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff, whom he replaced last year after she was impeached by his center-right congressional allies for breaking budgetary rules.
He took over promising to restore political stability and to steer Brazil out of its deepest recession in history with market reforms.
Yet the political capital he needs for those reforms, including the hugely unpopular proposal to cut back generous pensions and to free up labor laws, is rapidly slipping away.
Currently, there is far from overwhelming appetite in the lower house of Congress to bring him down. There is no clear candidate to take his place on an interim basis before scheduled elections in October 2018, and many of the major figures in Congress are themselves battling corruption allegations.
But Janot’s decision to separate the charges, filing them piecemeal, will make sure the crisis drags on and could weaken Temer’s base, making congressional approval for a trial more likely. The simmering crisis could also have the potential to stir up public anger in the streets.
The bribery charge is linked to the arrest of a close former presidential aide with a suitcase stuffed with cash that prosecutors say was part of payments from JBS meatpacking executives to Temer.
In a filing with the Supreme Court, Janot accused Temer of receiving a 500,000-real (about $150,000) bribe.
Equally explosive is the allegation that Temer approved of a plan with Joesley Batista, owner of JBS parent company J&F, to pay hush money to a politician jailed for corruption.
Batista secretly recorded Temer in an allegedly compromising discussion and gave the recording to prosecutors in a plea bargain to secure leniency in his own corruption case.
In a further sign of Temer’s weakening position, an important figure in his ruling coalition, former president Fernando Henrique Cardoso, called for him to step down and help Brazil hold new elections.
It would be "a gesture of greatness", Cardoso wrote in the Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. — AFP