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Workers are leaving the FDA for the industries they regulated

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The departure of the head of the Food and Drug Administration’s tobacco science office for a job in the tobacco industry shines a new spotlight on a long-running problem: the “revolving door” between government regulators and the industries they police.

Matt Holman, whose work at the FDA influenced decisions around the safety of products such as e-cigarettes, left the agency Tuesday for a job with Philip Morris International, whose products — sold overseas — include Marlboro cigarettes and the electronic tobacco-delivery system IQOS.

Agency watchdogs say where there is smoke, there’s an ethics fire. They’ve warned of revolving-door concerns — only well-documented for high-level positions and for the Defense Departmentfor decades. But there is little hard data on just how big the problem is. A Grid analysis of LinkedIn profile data suggests that at least 2,700 ex-FDA employees now work for the pharmaceutical industry. Another 1,100 current FDA employees have moved the other way, from industry to the agency, according to the profile information.

Former FDA employees are found throughout many other industries regulated by the agency as well: Around 1,200 now work in the biotechnology industry, and more than 600 work in the medical devices industry. Some of the most high-profile examples include Trump FDA chief Scott Gottlieb, on the board of directors of Pfizer weeks after he left the job, as well as the current commissioner, Robert Califf, who went from heading FDA during the Obama administration to Alphabet Inc.’s health subsidiaries, and then back to heading the agency this year. Califf pledged not to work for a pharmaceutical or medical device firm for four years after leaving his current post to win the Senate votes he needed for his confirmation.

In a July 26 memo announcing Holman’s departure, newly installed FDA Center for Tobacco Products Director Brian King said that Holman had recused himself from tobacco-related regulatory decision-making and been on leave before July. “I’m grateful to Matt for his contributions to the Center and unwavering commitment to you all over the years,” said King.

The numbers are both interesting and not surprising, said Michael Carome of Public Citizen, a public health watchdog group based in Washington, D.C. The count likely underestimates the number of agency employees who have jumped to the industries they once regulated, he added, and obviously doesn’t include industry figures who have moved to the agency, where they briefly stay before returning to their home industry, another area of concern for ethics experts.

“Unfortunately, when you see somebody go from a regulating agency to the regulated industry, the public is naturally going to react like it’s a betrayal, because it does call into question your commitment to the mission of protecting the public,” said government ethics expert Walter Shaub of the Project on Government Oversight. While regulated companies may honestly want the expertise of the people charged with regulating them, said Shaub, “the other thing is that they want to know the inside workings of the FDA.”

“They want to, or one might suspect they want to, create an atmosphere in which employees at FDA know that there’s a lucrative job waiting for them, potentially, as long as they don’t really upset the regulated industry, right? I just think that’s human nature,” he added.

Revolving-door concerns rise and fall with news of moves like Holman’s, said Carome. Concerns also were high during the Trump administration, when both Cabinet officials and the president faced ethics complaints about their business links. “There is just a real lack of data out there on how bad things are at the agency employee level,” Carome added.

LinkedIn data includes 645 million people and 56 million companies, but has limitations, said Dorothy Norris-Tirrell, chief learning officer of the Nonprofit Leadership Alliance, whose own research uses LinkedIn to investigate career paths at nonprofits. Chiefly, the data is self-reported by users rather than verified and is not updated. However, the data could be taken to point at trends, she suggested, and it would be interesting to stratify the listings by when people moved from the FDA to the industry, their job positions and the length of their tenure at the agency beforehand. (For perspective on LinkedIn’s comprehensiveness, it lists about 16,000 people as working for FDA right now, which is almost 90 percent of the agency’s full-time workforce.)

Regarding Holman, Philip Morris International said the former FDA official “is committed to helping existing adult smokers access scientifically substantiated smoke-free alternatives while protecting youth,” in a statement sent to Grid.

Holman is barred from communicating with the FDA about Philip Morris for a year, under ethics rules, and about any matter he was personally involved with at the agency for life. In comments to the New York Times, Holman defended his move, noting that he consulted with agency ethics lawyers and viewed Philip Morris International as moving away from cigarettes to less harmful tobacco products, saying he could have jumped to the industry much earlier after 20 years at the FDA if that had been his goal. (He has not yet responded to a request for comment from Grid.)

However, numerous regulatory affairs or drug development employees at FDA-regulated pharmaceutical companies, including Merck, Abbott and Johnson & Johnson, worked at the FDA for more than a decade prior to moving to the industry, according to the LinkedIn data. “The idea that they recuse themselves is really BS, because they are telling the companies how to manipulate the system behind the scenes,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, herself a former Department of Health and Human Services employee.

Holman’s departure comes as the Biden administration has turned up the heat on the tobacco industry, planning to require slashing nicotine in cigarettes to minimally addictive levels, and moving to prohibit menthol cigarettes. A 2016 law has led to a crackdown on e-cigarettes, threatening small vaping shops and leading to a lawsuit with Juul after the agency last month ordered the e-cigarette maker to halt sales, despite allowing tobacco giant RJR to sell its own e-cigarettes. The agency’s tobacco and food safety programs are now under external review after the recent infant formula shortage and a surge in teens vaping nicotine since 2017.

“There have been a lot of strange decisions coming out of that office,” said Stanton Glantz, founding director of the UCSF Center for Tobacco Control Research and Education, a longtime tobacco industry critic, referring to the Center for Tobacco Products.

Like other tobacco companies, Philip Morris International has moved to “noncombustible” tobacco and vaping devices, part of its bid to expand beyond cigarette sales. On March 11, Holman signed a “modified risk order” from the FDA to Philip Morris authorizing the company to market its heated tobacco products using language saying that such a product “significantly reduces your body’s exposure to harmful or potentially harmful chemicals.”

“He seems more sympathetic to Philip Morris’s language on tobacco than a public health official should be,” said Glantz. (Sales of Philip Morris heated tobacco products are on hold in the U.S., part of a global patent fight with its rival, RJR, marked by mutual claims of infringement.)

While federal ethics laws require the narrow recusal of former agency officials from communicating with regulators about matters they personally worked on, the rules don’t exclude issues their colleagues or subordinates worked on, said Shaub. The laws also lack teeth beyond protecting trade secrets or classified information: “The penalty is you might be fired from your government job, which is not much of a threat to someone who has left an agency.” While obviously not every FDA employee can or should be barred from working for a regulated industry, Shaub called for toughening the rules for people in the most pivotal roles, those making decisions about permitting lucrative products —including tobacco, still the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S. — that may harm the public.

The Biden administration attempted to address the revolving-door phenomenon last year by ordering its appointees to pledge to not work on matters they oversaw at an agency for two years after they left their position, and to not help others lobby on those positions for one year. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has questioned tax-preparers over the hiring of Treasury and IRS officials, co-sponsoring an Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act during the Trump administration meant to curb use of the revolving door by high-ranking officials.

“There are certain really sensitive positions, involving national security or public safety, that ought to be considered out of bounds for this kind of revolving door,” said Shaub. “And the FDA certainly is on the front line of public safety.”

Thanks to Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.




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NYC Mayor Adams defends appointments of brother and ex-cop with ties to corrupt businessman

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Mayor Adams went on the defensive Sunday over prominent appointments for his own brother and a former high-ranking cop implicated in a bribery scandal.

He said his office was seeking a waiver from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board to allow sibling Bernard Adams to take a high-ranking NYPD job — after the brother had already joined the city payroll.

“Let me be clear on this: My brother is qualified for the position,” Adams told CNN’s “State of the Union,” explaining that Bernard Adams would be “in charge of my security.”

Security “is extremely important to me in a time when we see an increase in white supremacy and hate crimes,” Adams said. “I have to take my security in a very serious way.”

The mayor’s office confirmed Sunday that Bernard Adams was already on the city payroll. An internal NYPD message on Friday listed him as a new deputy commissioner assigned to Commissioner Keechant Sewell’s office, according to police sources. That’s a temporary title, according to the mayor’s office, with his new position to be named in the future.

Taking Bernard Adams on before getting COIB approval for the hire drew criticism from government watchdog Common Cause New York.

“In most instances, I would expect that the request for a waiver would be done in advance of the person taking the position,” the group’s executive director Susan Lerner told the Daily News.

“We certainly don’t want a government that operates by ‘I’d rather ask for forgiveness than permission,’ because that is lawless,” she added.

The mayor’s office did not comment on the criticism.

The City Charter bars electeds from providing any form of financial gain for associates. Previous mayors have gotten waivers to give jobs to family members, though those have been unpaid roles.

Mayor Adams again made the case for his brother at an unrelated Manhattan press conference.

“We have an increase in anarchists in this city [and] country,” he said. “We have a serious problem with white supremacy. When you talk about the type of security that I want it is extremely unique. I don’t want to be away from my public.”

He also argued that his family connection with Bernard Adams would be an asset.

“My life — my life — I want in the hands of my brother,” said the mayor. “He knows his brother, and he’s going to keep his brother safe.”

During the 2020 mayoral campaign, Adams, a former NYPD captain, told a NY1 podcast he wouldn’t need a security detail and that he would carry a gun himself.

But Adams on Sunday indicated he would need protection as he continued his frequent public appearances throughout the five boroughs.

“I don’t want the people of this city to believe the mayor is not approachable and he’s not willing to engage with them on the level that I want to represent,” he told CNN. “You saw I took the subway system [on] my Day One in office, and those are the types of things that I am going to do.”

Asked about his appointment of Phil Banks — who abruptly resigned as the NYPD’s chief of department amid a federal corruption probe in 2014 — Adams said he was not worried about the message he might be sending.

“Phil acknowledges there were some real mistakes and errors that were made. He was not accused of a crime,” Adams said of Banks, the new deputy mayor for public safety.

Banks was named as an unindicted co-conspirator in a sweeping corruption probe that led to guilty pleas from two businessmen who donated generously to former Mayor Bill de Blasio’s political causes. Banks received as much as $500,000 in income from one of those businessmen, Jonah Rechnitz, though he himself was never accused of wrongdoing.

“I can’t leave bad people doing bad things to good people on the bench when I have a talented person that just made some bad decisions,” Adams said. “He didn’t do anything that was criminal. Phil is a great person [at] the right time to do this job.”


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Italian ambassador fiasco- POLITICO

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Follow Ryan on Twitter.

First, watch this: China’s Ambassador to France Lu Shaye explains — on French television — how Taiwanese would be “re-educated” after they’re occupied by Beijing.

BLINKEN IN AFRICA: Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s focus shifts from Asia to Africa this week. Today he is joining a U.S.-South Africa strategic dialogue with his counterpart, Naledi Pandor. Here’s how Blinken is explaining the trip.

Next, Blinken heads to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, scene of weeks of deadly protests against a U.N. peacekeeping operation and a bid by President Félix Tshisekedi to auction oil and gas exploration rights inside one of the world’s most precious rainforests.

Why’s Tshisekedi doing it? Three out of four residents live in poverty, and he wants to get paid for conservation.

Tshisekedi isn’t shy about making bold and contradictory moves. His rainforest auction plans come after signing a landmark $500 million deal at the COP26 climate conference to protect the forest, claiming credit at the time for being a “genuine Solution Country to the climate crisis.” On Aug 5. he instructed his ministers to align DRC’s reform agenda with U.S. Millennium Challenge Corporation criteria. MCC is a Congress-funded foreign assistance agency, and DRC currently falls short on 14 of the 21 MCC criteria.

One of the few things DRC has been getting right, according to MCC, is natural resource protection … which doesn’t exactly align with chopping down large swathes of the jungle and pumping oil to the coast.

KENYA — TUESDAY ELECTION PREVIEW: Kenyans vote for a new president, senate and national assembly on Tuesday. The previous election was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2017 and followed by political violence — including the murder of poll workers and around 100 others. More than 1,200 people were killed after a 2007 election.

The two leading candidates are Deputy President William Ruto and former Prime Minister Raila Odinga. Opinion polls put Odinga ahead; he’s supported by current President Uhuru Kenyatta (not running because of term limits) who abandoned his deputy after a falling out.

The biggest story of the election might be young Kenyans boycotting the close race.

Odinga positions himself as a statesman — a mediator in regional conflicts and a supporter of the African Union to promote stability.

Ruto wants to be the outsider: He claims to speak for the “Hustler Nation” — those who work odd jobs to scrape by — but is himself a wealthy landowner. He told BBC he will deal “firmly and decisively” with corruption and “state capture” if he wins.

GREECE — PM UNDER PRESSURE OVER TAPPING OF OPPONENT’S PHONE: Kyriakos Mitsotakis rose to power on the promise of being a clean, moderate politician. So it’s a particularly bad look for his intelligence service to be caught tapping the phone of his political rival Nikos Androulakis, head of the center-left PASOK party.

Both Mitsotakis’s chief of staff (who also happens to be his nephew) and the head of the intelligence service resigned on Friday, my colleague Nektaria Stamouli reported. One report suggests Androulakis was wiretapped at the request of an allied state.

LATIN AMERICA COMINGS AND GOINGS: Gustavo Petro was sworn in as Colombia’s first leftist president over the weekend, and Peru needs a new prime minister after Aníbal Torres resigned — his replacement will be Peru’s fifth prime minister in a year, under President Pedro Castillo.

ITALY — ITALY’S FAR RIGHT BOOSTED BY COLLAPSE OF CENTER-LEFT ALLIANCE: While Italy’s social democrats look to be battling it out at the top of opinion polls with the far-right Brothers of Italy party, that’s mostly an illusion. The small, centrist Azione party has withdrawn its support for the center-left, leaving the combined progressive vote share at around 30 percent, compared to 46 percent for the right. More in POLITICO’s Poll of Polls.

CONGRESS MEETS WORLD

ITALIAN AMBASSADOR FIASCO: Italy is the only G-7 country without a full U.S. ambassador in post. 

Is it really that hard to find someone to spend a few years living in a 15th century villa in Rome? The former Papal Seminary College houses the important Villa Taverna art collection and includes a Baroque fountain, a third century A.D. Roman sarcophagus, ancient Egyptian granite columns and 300-year-old busts of Roman emperors.

Plus the food ain’t too shabby neither.

Or perhaps the problem is that Nancy Pelosi — worried about losing the speakership of the House in November — wants Rome as a back-up option. Is the seat being kept warm for her?

That’s the speculation in Rome, fueled by the lack of a Biden nominee.

Pelosi brought her extended family to a lavish Italian holiday in Forte dei Marmi in July, and Roman observers are split over whether that’s proof of her warming them up for Villa Taverna, or just an indication that America’s most powerful Italian-American can get her dose of la dolce vita through short trips instead.

Whatever the reason for the empty chair, “not having an American ambo in Rome in times of Italian turmoil is simply absurd and self-defeating for Washington,” one highly placed Italian source complained to Global Insider. “I’ve seen good ones from both Democrat and Republican ranks and how they operate, influence, pass messages, pull strings. There’s an audience for them. But they need to be on location.”

A second source, from the Italian corporate sector, worries that there’s no hope of an ambassador in place before summer 2023: “You need the ambassador here now because the leadership of the country is changing.”

The source suggests avoiding a cleavage between a center-left D.C. and an Italian government racing to the right: “Republicans will be absolutely essential to solving this puzzle — for making sure D.C. has all the interlocutors it needs in Rome.”

Republican doyenne Cindy McCain is already in Rome, but as ambassador to the United Nations Agencies for Food and Agriculture.

CHINA FRONTS

MILITARY CAPABILITY LESSONS: What we’re learning from Beijing’s military exercises off Taiwan, by Paul McLeary, Lara Seligman and Alex Ward. One of the takeaways is that China is getting good at coordinating its military branches.

By the numbers: Taiwan’s Ministry of Defense reported 68 aircraft and 13 vessels crossing into Taiwan’s air defense identification zone and the maritime “median line” in the strait separating Taiwan and China. At least one ballistic missile was fired over Taipei, and several missiles landed in Japanese waters.

In the event of an attempted Chinese occupation of Taiwan, Americans surveyed by Morning Consult are keen to cut commercial ties with China, but hesitant about further confrontation. Only 23 percent support cyberattacks against Beijing. The feelings are mutual among Democrats, Republicans and independents.

ZERO COVID RECESSION RISK: China’s exports grew stronger than expected in July, but manufacturing sentiment — a strong recession indicator — remains well below recent averages. A lack of confidence in Chinese investment is also fueling demand for American and European investment in Latin America, per a new report from Morning Consult.

“If China sticks with its zero-Covid policy, it could create opportunities for competitors all over the world,” per Josh Lipsky, Atlantic Council.

UKRAINE FRONTS

KYIV AND MOSCOW TEST WATERS FOR METAL TALKS: The pact reached last month to export grain out of Ukraine through a safe corridor in the Black Sea may lead to an agreement on shipping metals like iron ore. Ukraine’s chief trade negotiator Taras Kachka told POLITICO that “Russian producers are desperate … Russian steel in Black Sea ports is traded with [an] enormous discount.”

The rationale:Ukraine is the one of the world’s largest steel exporters, producing 21.4 million metric tons of crude steel in 2021. Russian-occupied Ukraine is also home to iron and steel production, and steel producers there are suffering from Western sanctions.

Moscow open to the idea: When asked about Kachka’s suggestion, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that “the solution of such issues is impossible without direct linkage to the restrictions that apply to our producers — in this case, metal producers. Therefore, there is a lot to discuss here,” Interfax reported.

NEW ROCKET STRIKE ON UKRAINE NUCLEAR PLANT. The U.N. nuclear watchdog is again warning of radioactive disaster.

AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL UKRAINE CHIEF RESIGNED over a report, published Thursday, which said that the placement of Ukrainian troops in residential areas heightened risks to civilians during Russia’s invasion. Oksana Pokalchuk resigned in protest, accusing Amnesty chiefs of not understanding the realities of wartime in the country. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy led a chorus of officials in complaining that the report was a blame-shifting propaganda gift to Moscow.

Anti-personnel mines: In Donetsk and Kramatorsk, “Russia has highly likely attempted employment of PFM-1 and PFM-1S scatterable anti-personnel mines. Commonly called the ‘butterfly mine’, the PFM-1 series are deeply controversial, indiscriminate weapons,” per U.K. Ministry of Defense.

Russia banned energy and bank share sales: Investors from “unfriendly countries” may not sell energy projects and banks until the end of the year, per a new Kremlin edict published Friday.

1,060 Ukrainian towns and villages have been liberated from Russian occupiers, per Zelenskyy. That still leaves well over 2,000 under occupation.

AFGHANISTAN ONE YEAR LATER — ‘THEY BEAT GIRLS JUST FOR SMILING’: Welcome to life in Afghanistan one year after the Taliban’s return: where girl students now make plans to fail sixth grade so they can keep returning to the classroom — ”harnessing their intelligence to self-sabotage,” as Emma Graham-Harrison reports.

CLIMATE CORNER

The probably good news — U.S. climate bill almost at Biden’s desk: The Inflation Reduction Act allocates $369 billion to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and investing in renewable energy sources, just over $1,000 per American resident. If fully implemented, the act is predicted to cut 7 to 9 percent from total U.S. carbon emissions. That won’t be enough for the U.S. to meet its 2030 Paris climate agreement commitments, but would still be the biggest single emissions reduction contribution in history.

The definitely good news — First subsidy-free offshore wind farm open: The 1.5 gigawatt Hollandse Kust Zuid wind farm located off the coast of the Netherlands has begun generating electricity and feeding it into the Dutch electricity grid. Swedish power company Vattenfall won a bidding process in 2019, and began installing the turbines in April: Today, 36 out of a planned 140 turbines have been installed.

The bad news — Rhine River runs dry: The Rhine connects Europe’s mega-ports (Rotterdam and Antwerp) to Germany’s industrial heartland and landlocked Switzerland. Well, it did. When the water level is just 19 inches at the most critical navigation point in the river, as it is today, some ships can’t pass. The water levels are on track to hit a record low by October.

YOUR FEEDBACK: I asked what you thought about new air-conditioning limits being imposed in parts of Europe to conserve energy. Dolores Oliver from Pittsburgh wants fellow Global Insider readers to toughen up: “We keep our heat at 55°F during the day and 50°F at night during winter. Our air conditioner is 75°F in summer,” she wrote Global Insider.

“We have all become used to a cushy life. We can’t comprehend losing our comfort even when the cost is due to the terrible aggressions of another country. Let us remember what citizens of Europe as a whole and US/Canada had to endure during and after WW2. Let us endure so we may look back at our efforts and look forward with unified pride at how we came together and supported the Ukrainian people whose very lives are at risk.”

GERMAN DIPLOMAT ARRESTED OVER DEAD HUSBAND IN BRAZIL: The diplomat, Uwe Herbert Hahn, claimed that his husband, Walter Henri Maximilien Biot, collapsed, hitting his head after drinking and taking sleeping pills. Police say Biot died of neck trauma and was severely beaten. They described Hahn’s explanation as “incompatible” with the evidence and alleged that the diplomat also attempted to clean up the scene before the police arrived.

GREAT SALARY CONVERGENCE: It used to mean living in a mid-tier city or town meant being paid less than living in a world capital like New York, or global tech’s Bay Area hub. Now, as more companies hire from national rather than regional talent pools, and give up on telling workers where they have to locate, salaries are balancing out between the most expensive and cheaper cities.

The pay gap between the Bay Area and Washington, D.C., shrunk from 15 percent to 3 percent during the pandemic, for example. More from Aki Ito.

NEW MICRONATION: The mysteries that gave birth to the world’s newest attempted micronation off Scotland, presided over by mindbender and spoon abuser Uri Geller.

HUB — Solutions Story Tracker: If you’re frustrated at negativity in journalism, Dave Bornstein offers you the Solutions Journalism Network.

PLAY: ​​Patriots for Free. Peter Morgan (The Crown, Frost/Nixon) has new play about Vladimir Putin and oligarch Boris Berezovsky, starring Tom Hollander, at London’s Almeida Theater.

Thanks to editor Ben Pauker and producer Hannah Farrow. 

SUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: D.C. Playbook | Brussels Playbook | London Playbook | ParisPlaybook | Ottawa Playbook | EU Confidential | D.C. Influence | EU Influence | London Influence | Digital Bridge | China Direct | Berlin Bulletin | Living Cities

POLITICO is now on Snapchat watch my first show here, on the race to replace Boris Johnson.




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Opinion | Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro Is Afraid of Going to Jail, and He’s Right to Be

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SÃO PAULO, Brazil — “I’m letting the scoundrels know,” President Jair Bolsonaro told supporters last year, “I’ll never be imprisoned!”

He was shouting. But then, Mr. Bolsonaro tends to become animated when talking about the prospect of prison. “By God above,” he declared to an audience of businesspeople in May, “I’ll never be arrested.” As he spends “more than half” of his time dealing with lawsuits, he surely feels well armed against arrest. But there’s desperation in his defiance. The fate of the former Bolivian President Jeanine Áñez, who was recently sentenced to prison for allegedly orchestrating a coup, hangs heavy in the air.

For Mr. Bolsonaro, it’s a cautionary tale. Ahead of presidential elections in October, which he’s on course to lose, Mr. Bolsonaro is plainly worried he too may be arrested for, as he put it with uncharacteristic understatement, “antidemocratic actions.” That fear explains his energetic attempts to discredit the election before it happens — such as, for example, gathering dozens of foreign diplomats to fulminate against the country’s electronic voting system.

Yet however absurd the behavior — and forcing ambassadors to sit through a crazed 47-minute diatribe is certainly on the wacky end of the spectrum — the underlying motive makes perfect sense. Because the truth is that Mr. Bolsonaro has plenty of reasons to fear prison. In fact, it’s getting hard to keep track of all the charges against the president and his government.

To start with, there’s the small matter of a Supreme Court investigation into Mr. Bolsonaro’s allies for participating in a kind of “digital militia” that floods social media with disinformation and coordinates smear campaigns against political opponents. In a related inquiry, Mr. Bolsonaro himself is being investigated for, in the words of a Federal Police report, his “direct and relevant role” in promoting disinformation.

Yet Mr. Bolsonaro’s wrongdoing is hardly confined to the digital world. Corruption scandals have defined his tenure, and the rot starts at home. Two of his sons, who also hold public offices, have been accused by state prosecutors of systematically stealing public funds by pocketing part of the salaries of close associates and ghost employees on their payrolls. Similar accusations, concerning his period as a lawmaker, have been directed at the president himself. In March, he was charged with administrative improbity for keeping a ghost employee as his congressional aide for 15 years. (The supposed aide was actually an açaí seller.)

Charges of corruption also surround high-ranking members of the government. In June, Brazil’s former education minister, Milton Ribeiro, was arrested on charges of influence peddling. Mr. Bolsonaro, who is mentioned by name by Mr. Ribeiro in compromising audio clips, was steadfast in his defense of the minister. “I would put my face in the fire for Milton,” the president said before the arrest, later explaining that he would only put his hand in the fire. He maintains, against all available evidence, there is no “endemic corruption” in his government.

Then there’s the damning report by the special Senate committee on Brazil’s Covid-19 response, which describes how the president actively helped to spread the virus and can be held responsible for many of Brazil’s 679,000 deaths. It recommends that Mr. Bolsonaro be charged with nine crimes, including misuse of public funds, violation of social rights and crimes against humanity.

How does the president respond to this swirling charge sheet? With secrecy orders. These injunctions, concealing evidence for a century, have been applied to all manner of “sensitive” information: the detailed expenses of Mr. Bolsonaro’s corporate credit card; the army’s disciplinary process that acquitted a general and former health minister for having participated in a pro-Bolsonaro demonstration; and fiscal reports from the corruption investigation targeting his eldest son. This is a far cry from the man who, early in his tenure, bragged of bringing “transparency above all else!”

If secrecy doesn’t work, there’s obstruction. Mr. Bolsonaro has frequently been accused of trying to obtain privileged information from investigations, or to stymie them altogether. In the most notorious instance, the president was accused by his own former minister of justice of interfering with the independence of the Federal Police. It’s a credible charge. After all, in a leaked recording of a ministerial meeting two years ago, Mr. Bolsonaro was caught saying that he wasn’t going to “wait to see my family or my friends get screwed” when he could just as well replace law enforcement officials.

To exercise that power, though, he needs to keep his job. With that in mind, Mr. Bolsonaro has been handing out top government jobs and using a pot of funds, called a “secret budget” for its lack of transparency, to guarantee the support of centrist lawmakers. Given the strength of calls for impeachment — as of December 2021, over 130 requests had been filed against him — a bank of support is crucial. The strategy is no secret: Mr. Bolsonaro confessed to doing both in order to “placate Congress.” He denies that the budget is secret, despite the fact that those who request funds from it remain anonymous.

But the bigger challenge is winning over the electorate. There, again, Mr. Bolsonaro is resorting to tricks and workarounds. In July, Congress passed a constitutional amendment — nicknamed the “kamikaze bill” by the minister of the economy — that grants the government the right to spend an extra $7.6 billion on welfare payments and other benefits until Dec. 31. If it sounds like a shameless attempt to gin up support across the country, that’s because it is.

Whether it will help the president’s cause, who knows. But the signal it sends is unmistakable: Mr. Bolsonaro is desperate to avoid defeat. And he has every reason to be.


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