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Brazil's President Remains Defiant As His Corruption Trial Begins


Hearings begin in Brazil tonight that could eventually bring down the president. Michel Temer is accused of election campaign violations. He's already struggling to keep his job because of a major corruption scandal. NPR's Philip Reeves reports from the capital, Brasilia.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: To get a sense of the mood here, step into the fun fair. Pedro Braga is here to get away for an hour or two from the political tension that's engulfed this city.

PEDRO BRAGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "If you don't have a little fun," says Braga, "you go nuts."

BRAGA: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: "Because," he says, "politics in Brazil is just like a roller coaster." A roller coaster that only ever goes downhill. For weeks, Brazil's been gripped by speculation that President Temer's roller coaster presidency is about to crash. Braga, who's a business manager and has a small kid, finds the uncertainty frightening.

Michel Temer first came to power in 2010 as Brazil's vice president. Last year, he became president when his running mate, President Dilma Rousseff, was impeached. The case Temer's now facing in an electoral court is over whether he and Rousseff violated election laws during Brazil's 2014 poll. Temer's troubles are much bigger than that. He wants to lead Brazil out of its deepest-ever recession by overhauling pensions and labor laws.


UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTERS: (Chanting) Fora Temer. Fora Temer.

REEVES: Hundreds of thousands of Brazilians have been taking to the streets to protest, some carrying banners portraying him as a blood-sucking vampire. One demonstration here grew so violent that Temer briefly called in the army. Trade union official Rodrigo Britto was there.

RODRIGO BRITTO: (Speaking Portuguese).

REEVES: He thinks Temer's frightened because he lacks legitimacy as he was never actually elected president. Temer's position suddenly got much worse a few weeks ago. A secret recording surfaced in which he apparently approves hush money payments to a jailed politician. The Brazilian president is now under investigation for corruption and obstructing justice. Temer denies guilt and says that the secret recording was manipulated.

Do you know him as a person?

THIAGO DE ARAGAO: I know him as a person, yes.

REEVES: Thiago de Aragao is a political analyst and consultant. He says the 76-year-old Temer is a workaholic who's determined to complete his term, which ends in 18 months.

ARAGAO: I think that some people who devote their entire lives to politics, they don't know how to do any other thing.

REEVES: Despite the scandal, Temer's refusing to resign and counterattacking. He's an expert in constitutional law who knows exactly how to fight legal battles, says Aragao.

ARAGAO: So he understands that if he blinks in the game he might lose. And I don't think that he would go down the path of resignation without going all the way in the battle of the judicial field.

REEVES: Temer also knows all about defending himself politically. He spent 30 years in Parliament and was speaker of the House twice. Political journalist Jose Maria Trindade has known Temer for years.

JOSE MARIA TRINDADE: (Through interpreter) He's politically skillful and knows how to use the weapons of politics. He knows what everyone wants.

REEVES: Temer needs these weapons now just to survive, let alone overhaul Brazil's economy. The electoral court case against him could last a long time. Yet if Temer eventually loses, his already dwindling political allies could then desert him and the president's roller coaster ride would be over. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Brasilia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.