The two largest countries in the western hemisphere are in the midst of presidential crises.
In Brazil, where crisis has been the norm for nearly three years, allegations and evidence of corruption have led to renewed calls for President Michel Temer’s impeachment or resignation.
In the United States, the investigation into Russian interference with the 2016 presidential campaign and President Donald Trump’s recent decision to fire the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation have led some to call for him to leave or be removed from office.
Temer and Trump both came into office controversially and have governed just as controversially. Opposition parties in both countries have called for their president to leave or be removed from office and yet they still hold power. Both men also face the reality that neither is likely to be removed from office through the impeachment process.
In the last week, two pieces of evidence have emerged that directly implicate President Temer in corruption. The first is a court document that says that he took 15 million reais (US$4.6 million) in bribes from JBS, a Brazilian meat packing company which has been under investigation for months for bribery and tainted meat products.
The second is an audiotape of a conversation between Temer and the Chairman of JBS. On the recording, President Temer supports giving hush money to Eduardo Cunha, a political ally of the president and former President of the Chamber of Deputies. Cunha was arrested in October 2016 on corruption charges.
As Reuters reported on May 22, in an interview with Folha de S.Paulo President Temer admitted that it is his voice on the recording but emphasized his innocence:
“I have shown, with relative success, that what that businessman did was to induce a conversation,” the president told Folha, acknowledging that he had been wrong to make no record of his meeting with the businessman in the official ledger of visitors.
Calls for Temer to be impeached are coming from across Brazilian civil society. As Bloomberg reported on May 21,
The council of Brazil’s Order of Lawyers, or OAB by its Brazilian acronym, voted 25 to 1 in favor of an impeachment hearing for Temer, and will file its request in the lower house of Congress in coming days, it said early on Sunday. The OAB says Temer failed to denounce criminal activities, broke with presidential decorum, and promised undue favors to individuals.
On May 17, just after the audiotape was released, Congressman Alessandro Molon called for Temer to be impeached.
The accusations of corruption against President Temer come a year after the Federal Senate voted to suspend then-President Rousseff after she was impeached by the Chamber of Deputies.
Rousseff’s impeachment and removal from office began in December 2015 when then-Congressman Eduardo Cunha (the same Eduardo Cunha who was arrested for corruption) filed a petition for her impeachment and ended in August 2016 when the Federal Senate voted to remove her from office.
Temer was Rousseff’s running-mate for both the 2010 and 2014 presidential elections. Brazil is a multiparty democracy, and it is very common for presidential tickets to have candidates for President and Vice President from different parties.
The motivations of the National Congress to remove Rousseff were political. The majority bloc in the National Congress, led by the Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), took advantage of the unpopularity of Rousseff’s handling of the economic downturn. By removing her from office and elevating Vice President Temer, the PMDB was able to implement their conservative political agenda.
However, President Temer’s economic agenda proved unpopular with the public, especially his pension reform plan. As the BBC reported on May 12,
President Temer proposes to fix the economy by rebalancing the budget, starting by the costly retirement system.
However, at the end of April, thousands marched against his plan, in the first general strike in over two decades.
In cities like Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, there were violent scenes. One poll said 71% were against changes in retirement laws, which will see people work longer and contribute more to the public pension system.
The recent evidence that directly implicates Temer in corruption places him in a position that appears much worse position than his predecessor was at this time last year. However, Temer has one advantage that Rousseff didn’t that may keep him in power through the end of his term: strong allies in the legislature.
The current political situation in the United States came about after Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, in which Donald Trump won a majority of the electoral college while losing the popular vote by several million votes.
Since his inauguration in January, things have only gotten more difficult for President Trump. In February, his National Security Advisor Michael Flynn was fired because of revelations that he lied to the Vice President about meeting with the Russian ambassador during the transition.
During congressional testimony in March, the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation James Comey revealed that the FBI had been investigating Russian interference in the election since July 2016.
On May 9, Trump fired Comey. Then on May 19, the New York Times published an article based on notes taken during a meeting in the Oval Office in which President Trump called Comey a “nut job.”
The conversation, during a May 10 meeting – the day after he fired Mr. Comey – reinforces the notion that the president dismissed him primarily because of the bureau’s investigation into possible collusion between Mr. Trump’s campaign and Russian operatives. Mr. Trump said as much in one televised interview, but the White House has offered changing justifications for the firing.
Since President Trump fired James Comey, calls for his impeachment have grown much stronger.
On May 17, the same day that Alessandro Molon filed a petition to impeach Temer, Congressman Al Green went on the floor of the House of Representatives to call for the impeachment of President Trump.
On May 22, Matthew Yglesias at Vox published an article titled “The case for impeaching Trump – and fast” in which he laid out his case for removing the president and why it’s in the Republican party’s interest to do so quickly.
In a May 21 editorial in the Washington Post, Fred Hiatt laid out a reasonable case for why impeaching the president (especially this president) may not go how or as smoothly as many think it may.
Here’s a likelier scenario: Trump goes to Mar-a-Lago to regroup, not retreat. Early in the morning, he tweets: “Join me on Day One of our campaign to reverse the most corrupt theft in political history and reclaim the White House in 2020.” His supporters vow to reverse the coup d’etat.
The main advantage that President Trump shares with President Temer is the composition of their countries’ legislatures. Trump’s position is even stronger since the United States has a two-party system and his party has total control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate. This fact may be enough to keep Trump in office throughout his term.
Furthermore, although there is an astounding amount of circumstantial evidence of collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia, no “smoking gun” has emerged like the audiotapes that sank Richard Nixon or implicate President Temer.
Likely Scenario: Resignation
It is important to remember that impeachment is a political, not judicial, and the politics just aren’t there to impeach Michel Temer or Donald Trump.
Both men enjoy support from their legislatures. In the House of Representatives, only two Republicans cosponsored a Democratic bill for an independent commission. Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine that caucuses with the Republicans, backtracked from an earlier statement that was more critical of the president. As the Washington Post reported on May 17, Senator King called for patience moving forward with the investigation:
“I think we’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “We’ve got to take a deep breath. We really need the facts. We need to see the memos. We don’t even have Jim Comey authenticating the memo. We have the White House denying the memo.”
As a political action, a Republican House of Representatives impeaching and a Republican Senate removing a Republican President seems incredibly unlikely. However, the situation in the United States is not as far along as it is in Brazil, where the president’s grasp on power is more tenuous.
While President Temer may be unpopular, his party still has a hold on the Chamber of Deputies and the Federal Senate.
The President of the Chamber of Deputies, while not from the same party as Temer, is a political ally of the administration. Rodrigo Maia became President of the Chamber of Deputies (a position equivalent to the Speaker of the House in the United States) after Eduardo Cunha was removed from office and arrested on corruption charges.
Maia’s rise to power last year mirrored Temer’s own. After some initial enthusiasm, Maia was accused of corruption as well. As El Comercio reported on May 20,
Maia, with tears in her eyes, called to “pacify this plenary” and “open a dialogue with the majority and the minority.” However, months later, in January 2017, a complaint arose that accused him of receiving bribes from the construction company OAS to finance his political campaigns, on condition of providing “political favors” in legislative matters. All this, moreover, was flatly denied by the parliamentarian. [*]
Should Temer leave office, Maia would become the acting president and the National Congress would have 30 days to elect a new President and Vice President to complete the terms.
Temer continues to be obstinate that he will not resign. As Reuters reported on May 22, in an interview with Folha de S.Paulo, President Temer said “I will not resign. Oust me if you want, but if I stepped down, I would be admitting guilt.”
President Temer’s hardline stance may change in the coming weeks as pressure grows for him to step down.
Although the time frame is not as tight as in Brazil, President Trump may face similar pressures as the investigations into collusion between his campaign and the Russian government continues.
Both men will face pressure from their own party to resign if their hold on power becomes impossible to maintain. Brent Budowsky of The Hill believes the scandal in the United States, which he calls “Putingate,” is following the same pattern and will end the same was as Watergate:
The decision to name the universally-respected former FBI Director Robert Mueller as special counsel on the Russian election scandal is a defining moment in modern American history that sets off a chain reaction that probably leads to the ultimate resignation of President Trump.
It is unlikely that either President Temer or President Trump will ever admit guilt. Neither man has a future in politics since the scandals surrounding them would taint any election they ran in. The question now is whether they will resign and leave office on their own terms or drag their parties down with them at the ballot box.
* Author’s translation