RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro regularly offends opponents with political incorrectness and far-right diatribes, but he is taking heavier fire than usual for suggesting a respected journalist tried to get dirt on him with offers of sex.
The man dubbed the “Tropical Trump” has racked up a long list of controversial remarks over the years. He has praised the use of torture by Brazil’s former military dictatorship. He once told a lawmaker he opposed she “wasn’t worth raping.” He has said he would rather see his sons die than come out as gay.
But this week’s firestorm has been big, even by his standards.
It started when award-winning journalist Patricia Campos Mello published an investigative story in one of Brazil’s leading newspapers, Folha de S.Paulo, on an organization that spread fake news on WhatsApp that slandered Bolsonaro’s opponents during his 2018 presidential campaign.
A former employee of a digital marketing firm that allegedly took part in the project told a congressional committee investigating the matter that Campos Mello had offered him sex in exchange for information.
The journalist and her newspaper refuted the claim, publishing the text messages she exchanged with the man and recordings of their conversations.
But Bolsonaro jumped right on board.
Using a word that has a double connotation in Portuguese — “furo,” which can mean both a “scoop” in the journalistic sense or a “hole” — he said that Campos Mello “wanted to get her ‘furo’ out there at any cost and use it against me.”
The remark drew the condemnation of the National Journalists’ Association and National Association of Magazine Editors, which said “the president’s insinuations seek to discredit the free press.”
It is far from the first time Bolsonaro has been accused of inappropriate sexual remarks and misogyny.
Last year, he raised eyebrows around the world when he insulted the appearance of French first lady Brigitte Macron after her husband criticized his handling of wildfires raging in the Amazon rainforest.
“It’s becoming clearer every day that the president needs urgent therapeutic care. His misogynous behavior belittles the office of the president,” said Paulo Jeronimo de Sousa, head of the Brazilian Press Association.
Speculation has mounted in Brazil over whether Bolsonaro could be impeached over such behavior, on charges of “violating the dignity and honor” of the presidency.
But it is unlikely his opponents could muster the needed three-fifths vote in the lower house of Congress.
“His statements were absolutely deplorable, but I don’t see any possibility of legal repercussions,” said Ivar Hartmann, a law professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation.
“The progressive left will clearly try to say Bolsonaro’s statement about the journalist was a breach of decorum worthy of impeachment proceedings,” he said. “But I don’t see Congress being ready to do that.”
There is little love lost between the press and Bolsonaro, who, like Trump, loves to bash the traditional news media.
He has made obscene gestures at journalists twice this month alone.
But the president risks alienating key players in Brasilia and beyond.
House speaker Rodrigo Maia of pro-business party the Democrats sounded the alarm Wednesday, saying Bolsonaro’s aggressive attitude could send “a negative signal to investors.”
On Monday, 20 governors called on Bolsonaro to employ more “balance, wisdom and dialogue” as head of state.
And on Thursday, center-right ex-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2002) said Bolsonaro’s remark about Campos Mello was “unacceptable.”
Some accuse the president of courting controversy in order to deflect attention from the underlying issues.
In December, when a journalist asked him about corruption accusations against his eldest son, Flavio, the president responded, “You look like a huge homosexual.”
“When he can’t come up with a rational response, he fires back with jokes — often offensive ones — to create a smokescreen,” said Hartmann. “His hard-core voter base likes that.”
Even when he is not attacking anyone in particular, Bolsonaro has a knack for diverting attention with surprising and vulgar statements.
In August, for example, he vowed to protect the environment by “pooping every other day.”