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Brazil riots put spotlight on close ties between Bolsonaro and Trump

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Picture: File – US President Donald Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro hold a joint news conference at the White House in Washington. The parallels between Trump and Bolsonaro show how an anti-democratic ideology embraced by Trump has been exported abroad and enlisted by foreign leaders and their allies, including Brazil, the writers say.

By Michael Kranish and Isaac Stanley-Becker

In August 2021, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s son travelled to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to meet with some of the most prominent purveyors of former president Donald Trump’s false claims of mass election fraud.

Eduardo Bolsonaro had a dire warning for the group, which included Steve Bannon, Trump’s former top adviser: Brazil’s electronic voting system was “ridiculous” and vulnerable to mass fraud, he said according to a recording of the event.

The gathering was part of the prologue to events that unfolded in Brazil on Sunday, when Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed government buildings – smashing windows and assaulting police – in a striking echo of the pro-Trump riot at the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. Like Trump, Bolsonaro had spent months predicting mass fraud and then refused to concede defeat after losing his October election.

While no evidence has emerged that Bolsonaro or his son had a direct role in the rioting in Brazil’s capital, it is clear that the family fomented anger against democratic institutions – part of a playbook that reflected their deep ties to Trump and those who fuelled his own push to cast doubt on American election results.

As Trump endorsed Jair Bolsonaro for re-election, prominent US election deniers made inroads with Bolsonaro’s movement and family, according to interviews and public documents. Eduardo Bolsonaro discussed election fraud with Bannon and lunched with former Trump adviser Jason Miller, while Donald Trump Jr spoke remotely to a gathering in Brazil last year to push claims that outside forces were seeking to undermine Bolsonaro’s campaign.

In more recent months, Bannon has used his “War Room” podcast to stoke claims of fraud in Bolsonaro’s loss and insist that proof of systematic cheating was at hand. When rioters breached Brazilian government buildings on Sunday, Bannon took to the social media site Gettr to call the pro-Bolsonaro crowds “Brazilian freedom fighters”.

The parallels between Trump and Bolsonaro show how an anti-democratic ideology embraced by Trump has been exported abroad and enlisted by foreign leaders and their allies. In addition to Brazil, Trump supporters have forged ties with far-right leaders in Hungary and other parts of Europe. While both Bolsonaro and Trump were ultimately cast out of office, with democratic institutions ratifying the will of voters, the recent turmoil has illuminated how deeply the Trump network has been enmeshed in Bolsonaro’s political world.

Trump has expressed repeated admiration for Bolsonaro, and the two have spoken in recent months – but two advisers said Trump had not spoken to him this year.

Trump, who did not respond to a request for comment, has not recently met with Bolsonaro – even though the Brazilian leader has now relocated to Florida, Trump’s state of residence, The Washington Post reported. While there were discussions of Bolsonaro attending Trump’s New Year’s Eve party at his Mar-a-Lago Club, the Brazilian leader did not go, according to Trump advisers who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.

The Bolsonaros could not be reached for comment; Jair Bolsonaro tweeted that he deplored “depredations and invasions of public buildings” and supported only peaceful demonstrations.

The key to Trump’s tight connection with Bolsonaro is Bannon, the former Goldman Sachs banker who became a leading nationalist and helped engineer Trump’s 2016 upset victory.

Bannon defended his involvement in Brazilian politics, saying in an interview that he had concerns about the legitimacy of Brazil’s election and declaring his closeness to the son of Brazil’s former president.

“People know that Eduardo and I are pretty close,” the far-right pundit told The Post.

An inside connection

In 2018, as Bolsonaro made a run for Brazil’s presidency, his son Eduardo – a federal lawmaker – approached Bannon looking for advice, the former Trump adviser said. Bannon had left the White House the previous summer after serving as Trump’s chief strategist.

Bannon and the younger Bolsonaro first met in New York in the summer of 2018 and discussed social media strategy, among other campaign topics. Bannon recalled praising Bolsonaro’s use of Facebook to give voters an intimate view of his life.

“I said, ‘Your campaign is like Salvini’s’,” Bannon recounted telling the candidate’s son, referring to Matteo Salvini, the far-right Italian populist who led his nationalist Northern League to a strong finish in his country’s 2018 elections.

Bannon at the time was seeking to unite populist movements in Europe in opposition to the continent’s trading bloc. But he also cautioned the younger Bolsonaro about security, warning him that his father should expand his protection detail and avoid throngs of people at airports and other public places. The front-runner candidate was stabbed at a campaign event in September of that year.

When Jair Bolsonaro was elected in 2018, he credited the win in part to his closeness to the US president, who lavished praise on the man he said was being called “the Donald Trump of South America”. Bolsonaro travelled to the United States in the spring of 2019 and held a dinner at the Brazilian Embassy in Washington at which Bannon was seated next to him. The next day, Bolsonaro met Trump at the White House, where they held what amounted to a political love fest. In their joint news conference, Bolsonaro and Trump spoke so similarly that their favourite phrases sometimes overlapped, with both men professing unity against what they called “fake news”.

As the coronavirus ravaged Brazil, and Bolsonaro railed against vaccine mandates and masking, his re-election prospects dimmed. Trump, also hurt by his conflicting message on covid-19, lost his re-election and claimed the election was stolen – a message that Bolsonaro and his son focused on, prodded in part by Trump’s advisers.

To that end, Eduardo Bolsonaro travelled to South Dakota in August 2021 to attend a “cybersecurity” forum organised by Mike Lindell, the MyPillow executive who has alleged Trump’s election was stolen by electronic voting machines. Bannon also attended.

In his speech, Eduardo Bolsonaro said that his father had exposed how hackers could get into Brazil’s electronic voting machines – echoing similar claims from Trump about his election. He showed the symposium a video of a rally of thousands of Brazilians protesting what a speaker called “rigged elections”.

The following month, former Trump adviser Miller participated in a conference held by the Brazil arm of the US-based Conservative Political Action Committee. Miller did not respond to a request for comment. At the same conference, Trump Jr, appearing by video, said that if people didn’t think China was trying to undermine Brazil’s election, “you haven’t been watching”, according to a report in the New York Times. Trump Jr declined to comment.

On January 4, 2021, two days before Trump supporters stormed the Capitol, several Bolsonaro family members, including Eduardo, visited the White House, according to visitor logs released by the House committee investigating the January 6 attack. The purpose of the visit, and who met with them, is not known.

Election fraud claims were seized upon by both Bolsonaro’s supporters and Trump’s allies after the first round of voting in October left Bolsonaro behind Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. Bannon claimed the result was “mathematically impossible” because Bolsonaro’s party had simultaneously strengthened its hand in the federal legislature. He said the incumbent’s finish behind Lula in that first round was a “very stark warning to MAGA and to all the Republicans of the games that are being played in these elections”.

Bannon has joined Lula critics in seizing on a report from the Brazilian armed forces that found no problems in the October contest but warned of potential vulnerabilities when voting machines are hooked up to the internet. He suggested that Bolsonaro should have acted on the report while he was still in power.

“I believe in taking a stand and making your case – the military’s audit report cuts to the heart of what the outstanding issues are with the election,” he told The Post. “That should have been a priority before Lula was inaugurated.”

Matthew Tyrmand, who frequently appears on Bannon’s far-right podcast to discuss global news, has faulted Bolsonaro more directly for leaving the country rather than staying to contest the results. A director at Project Veritas, the right-wing group known for its sting operations, Tyrmand in an interview with The Post on Monday invoked Bolsonaro’s prediction from 2021 that he had three options – being killed, arrested or re-elected.

“I don’t remember him saying going to Disney was the fourth option,” Tyrmand said. “He was the executive. He needed to work with the military along constitutional lines, and he did not.”

In the wake of Bolsonaro’s defeat, Bannon has continued to suggest on his podcast that Brazil’s election was fraudulent, a claim that Lindell also made in an interview with The Post.

A channel operated by Bannon’s show on the Telegram messaging app shared news articles calling the vote “corrupt” and attacking election observers.

After the election, Eduardo Bolsonaro strategised about his father’s political futures during a visit with Trump at Mar-a-Lago, met with Miller and spoke on the phone with Bannon, The Post reported. At the time, tens of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters, holding English-language signs that said “#BrazilWasStolen” held protests in more than 20 cities, asking military leaders to overturn the election results.

The military refused, and Lula was inaugurated January 1. Bolsonaro did not attend, skipping the customary transfer of power that exemplified the country’s democratic process. Instead, he had flown to Florida, where he has reportedly been staying at an Orlando property owned by the Brazilian MMA fighter José Aldo. A manager for Aldo did not respond to a request for comment.

In a farewell address, Bolsonaro said the election had been unfair but called on supporters to “respect the norms and the constitution”.

A week later, Bolsonaro’s supporters stormed government buildings in the nation’s capital. Hundreds were arrested, and Bolsonaro remained in Florida.

Michael Kranish is an American author and an investigative political reporter at The Washington Post. Isaac Stanley-Becker is national political reporter at The Washington Post. The Washington Post’s Josh Dawsey and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

This article was first published in The Washington Post