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Who let the dogs out?

Ever since Jair Bolsonaro became president in 2018, he had placed immense importance on controlling the narrative in the political sphere, in the press, and on social media. Much of his more outlandish statements and decisions have been made with public attention in mind, drawing attention away from matters that could damage his government’s image, and energizing his support base in the process. 

But, on rare occasions, he has let these narratives slip through his fingers. 

Threatened by opinion polls that suggest his leftist nemesis Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will win Sunday’s runoff election and dogged by the bad press surrounding leaked economic plans, Mr. Bolsonaro hoped to pull an ace from his sleeve over the weekend, using his staunch ally and former Congressman Roberto Jefferson to create a new political earthquake.

Mr. Jefferson violated conditions of his house arrest earlier this month, posting a video on social media verbally attacking a justice of the Supreme Court. Set to be arrested, the episode would have worked in Mr. Bolsonaro’s favor, painting his ally as a victim of a “judicial dictatorship” that sought to clamp down on the free speech rights of the president’s supporters.

But Mr. Bolsonaro didn’t realize Mr. Jefferson was not about to come quietly. As the Federal Police arrived at his home in countryside Rio de Janeiro to escort him back to jail, Mr. Jefferson welcomed them with dozens of shots from his military-grade assault rifle, as well as two grenades.

The ensuing standoff was an unmitigated disaster for the Bolsonaro campaign, which seemed confused about how to react. Initially, the administration portrayed the incident as a “crisis” to be peacefully resolved. Later, President Bolsonaro called Mr. Jefferson a “thug” for resisting arrest, and his cronies toed the line. Even for a hardcore supporter of the president, shooting at the Federal Police was a step too far to justify.

Several pundits have suggested that any chance Mr. Bolsonaro had of coming from behind to win the runoff were extinguished when Mr. Jefferson threw his first grenade.

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