RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil's attorney general formally accused President Michel Temer of corruption on Monday, making him the first sitting president in Latin America's largest nation to face criminal charges.
Attorney General Rodrigo Janot's accusation is the latest salvo in an intensifying showdown between Temer and justice officials who are building a corruption case that reaches to the highest levels.
The case now goes to the lower Chamber of Deputies in Congress, which must decide whether it has merit. If two-thirds of the legislature decides that it does, then the president will be suspended for up to 180 days while a trial is conducted. House Speaker Rodrigo Maia, an ally of Temer, would be president in the interim.
In his decision, Janot said that Temer at some point between March and April of this year took a bribe of around $150,000 offered by Joesly Batista, former chairman of meat-packing giant JBS.
Janot opened an investigation last month into Temer for corruption, obstruction of justice and being part of a criminal organization. A recording emerged that apparently captured Temer, in a late-night conversation with Batista earlier this year, endorsing hush money to former House Speaker Eduardo Cunha, a former Temer ally who is serving a 15-year sentence for corruption. Batista reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors.
Temer has denied wrongdoing and said he refuses to resign despite numerous calls for him to do so and plunging popularity. The office of the presidency said it would not have comment Monday night.
Janot's decision to put forward only the corruption allegation may be a strategy to force the lower Chamber of Deputies to first deal with it before having to consider the other allegations.
Allies of Temer have been torn between whether to continue supporting the beleaguered leader or bail on him because of fears that association could be toxic during elections next year.
Janot's 64-page decision was a blistering assessment of Temer and his actions as Brazil's top leader. Janot said bribes to Temer could have reached about $12 million over nine months, and that in general Temer showed a total disregard for the office.
"The circumstances of this meeting (with Batista) - at night and without any register in the official schedule of the president of the Republic - reveal the intent of not leaving traces of the criminal actions already taken," wrote Janot.
Earlier Monday, Temer sought to show his government conducting business as usual, defiantly saying he wasn't going anywhere in his first comments since returning from a trip to Russia and Norway last week that was filled with gaffes and mounting bad news.
"Nothing will destroy us. Not me and not our ministers," he said during the ceremonial signing of a bill in the capital of Brasilia.
Despite the optimism, Temer is facing risks to his mandate on several fronts, from tanking popularity to numerous calls, including from heavyweight politicians, for him to step down.
His trip last week to Russia and Norway ended up underscoring the president's problems and Brazil's diminished stature overseas thanks to a steady stream of corruption scandals the last three years.
Few people showed up at the reception at Brazil's embassy in Moscow, no top Norwegian officials welcomed Temer at Oslo's airport and the country's prime minister, Erna Solberg, gave Temer a public lecture about the colossal "Car Wash" investigation that has upended Brazilian politics and could even jail Temer and several of his Cabinet ministers.
Launched in March 2014, the investigation into billions of dollars in inflated construction contracts and kickbacks to politicians has landed dozens of the country's elite in jail and threatens many more.
"We are very concerned about the 'Car Wash' probe," said Solberg, adding that it was important for Brazil to "clean up" corruption.
To top it off, during Temer's visit, Norway announced a 50 percent cut in funds it pays into Brazil's Amazon rainforest fund because of increased deforestation. The increased deforestation began before Temer took power last year, but environmentalists argue his policies are aggravating the situation.
"It was a trip to distract people from the problems in politics," said Mauricio Santoro, a political scientist at the State University of Rio de Janeiro. "It ended up being a disaster."
Temer, who took over in May of last year after President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and later removed from office, now also has the dubious distinction of having the lowest approval rating of a president since 1989.
The Datafolha polling institute showed over the weekend that just 7 percent of those questioned approved of Temer's administration, the worst since the country was embroiled in a crisis of hyper-inflation on the watch of President Jose Sarney.
Even stalwart allies have begun to bail on Temer.
Former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, who initially supported Temer and is a key leader of the junior coalition party, said in an article published by daily Folha de S.Paulo on Monday that the president could end the crisis by ushering in new elections sooner than the end of his mandate, which goes through 2018.
"I plead with the president to meditate over the opportunity of such a gesture of greatness," said Cardoso.
Follow Peter Prengaman: http://www.twitter.com/peterprengaman
Follow Mauricio Savarese: https://www.twitter.com/MSavarese