“I would never go into politics. There’s no risk of that happening,” said Federal Judge Sérgio Moro on November 5, 2016. The overseer of Operation Car Wash added: “I am a judge, I’m in another world, another kind of work – I am a different type of person.”
Two years later, Mr. Moro has apparently decided to change worlds and go into politics. On Thursday, he accepted an invitation from President-elect Jair Bolsonaro to become Brazil’s next Minister of Justice – in what could be a masterstroke from both Mr. Moro and Mr. Bolsonaro. However, it could also be a disaster.
As part of Mr. Bolsonaro’s reshuffling and downsizing of the cabinet, Sérgio Moro will be a kind of “super minister.” His Justice Ministry will now encompass the Federal Police, the Federal Comptroller’s Office, the Ministry of Transparency, and Coaf, Brazil’s watchdog against financial crimes, currently attached to the Ministry of Finance. In a statement made on Thursday, he said he’ll immediately step down from all Operation Car Wash-related cases and that he accepted the nomination for the “opportunity to implement a strong anti-corruption and anti-organized crime agenda.”
In the short-term, at least, it’s a genius move by Mr. Bolsonaro. The stock market had a record-setting day after the announcement, filled with optimism.
Also, by creating “super ministers,” the President-elect is outsourcing the political risks of his administration’s potential shortcomings. When he empowered Paulo Guedes as his economic tsar, he knows that if the economy does well, he’ll take the credit; but if things go south, the blame will fall solely on Mr. Guedes. The same logic applies to his new “super minister against corruption.”
Mr. Bolsonaro has brought in a hero of the indignant middle-class and will automatically gain popularity as a result. If Mr. Moro fails, it won’t be the fault of the president, who “gave him all the resources to thrive.” If he succeeds, Mr. Bolsonaro will be the president who fixed the system.
Also, in a Trump-esque move, the president-elect showed who’s the boss. One and a half years ago, he was snubbed by the judge at Brasília Airport. Today, he made Mr. Moro travel from Curitiba to his house in Rio de Janeiro, and even said the federal judge, who convicted former president Lula, “was as happy as a young man getting his college diploma” upon hearing the invitation by the president-elect.
Inevitably, Mr. Moro’s addition to the cabinet sparked many comments from left-wing politicians who claim the judge who conducted the largest anti-corruption investigation in Brazilian history was acting politically all along. After all, he convicted Lula, the country’s most popular politician who was leading the presidential race again. To cash in just days after the Mr. Bolsonaro’s victory has infuriated many. “It sends the wrong message about the Justice system as a whole,” said former Supreme Court Chief Justice Carlos Ayres Britto.
While Mr. Moro didn’t limit his actions to the Workers’ Party, it was against the center-left party that he committed his worst mistakes (and excesses). In March 2016, he ordered Lula to be taken in for questioning without even inviting the former president for a statement – which is customary with authorities.
Then, when Lula was named as Chief of Staff for then-President Dilma Rousseff, Mr. Moro released wiretaps of the two – even though they were recorded after the judge’s authorization to monitor Lula’s phone had expired. The move was intended at creating a political climate which would make it impossible for Lula to join the administration – preventing the former president from getting out of the judge’s jurisdiction.
Why the move could backfire (for both Bolsonaro and Moro)
For Mr. Moro, the risks are clear. By taking Operation Car Wash to the federal administration, he could damage its credibility to a point beyond repair. Brazilians already think that the investigation doesn’t treat all parties the same way. Now, the operation would no longer be subjected to the checks and balances all police investigations should. Mr. Moro has been accused in the past of routinely using precautionary arrests (an exceptional move) as leverage to make defendants collaborate with investigations. If Mr. Moro slips up, he could fall into disgrace.
For Mr. Bolsonaro, the risks are more subtle. By choosing Mr. Moro, he brings someone who rivals his status as a “legend.” The aura surrounding the judge is due to the fact that Operation Car Wash marked the first time corrupt individuals who bribe politicians were put behind bars. Billionaire owners of construction companies have now spent enduring months in jail, and some have already been convicted by Mr. Moro. This sounds like music to the ears of Brazilians, who are fed up with the successive corruption scandals found at every level (federal, state, municipal), and from all political parties.
If he is successful, he’d automatically be pushed into the 2022 presidential race. And he could become too big of a shadow for the future president.