Trump Allies Help Bolsonaro Sow Doubt in Brazil’s Elections

BRASÍLIA — The conference hall was packed, with a crowd of more than 1,000 cheering attacks on the press, the liberals and the politically correct. There was Donald Trump Jr. warning that the Chinese could meddle in the election, a Tennessee congressman who voted against certifying the 2020 vote, and the president complaining about voter fraud.

In many ways, the September gathering looked like just another CPAC, the conservative political conference. But it was happening in Brazil, most of it was in Portuguese and the president at the lectern was Jair Bolsonaro, the country’s right-wing leader.

Fresh from their assault on the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election, former President Donald J. Trump and his allies are exporting their strategy to Latin America’s largest democracy, working to support Mr. Bolsonaro’s bid for re-election next year — and helping sow doubt in the electoral process in the event that he loses.

They are branding his political rivals as criminals and communists, building new social networks where he can avoid Silicon Valley’s rules against misinformation and amplifying his claims that the election in Brazil will be rigged.

For the American ideologues pushing a right-wing, nationalist movement, Brazil is one of the most important pieces on the global chess board. With 212 million people, it is the world’s sixth-largest nation, the dominant force in South America, and home to an overwhelmingly Christian population that continues to shift to the right.

Brazil also presents a rich economic opportunity, with abundant natural resources made more available by Mr. Bolsonaro’s rollback of regulations, and a captive market for the new right-wing social networks run by Mr. Trump and others.

For the Brazilian president, who finds himself increasingly isolated on the world stage and unpopular at home, the American support is a welcome boost. The Trump name is a rallying cry for Brazil’s new right and his efforts to undermine the U.S. electoral system appear to have inspired and emboldened Mr. Bolsonaro and his supporters.

But Brazil is a deeply divided nation where the institutions safeguarding democracy are more vulnerable to attack. The adoption of Mr. Trump’s methods is adding fuel to a political tinderbox and could prove destabilizing in a country with a history of political violence and military rule.

“Bolsonaro is already putting it into people’s heads that he won’t accept the election if he loses,” said David Nemer, a University of Virginia professor from Brazil who studies the country’s far right. “In Brazil, this can get out of hand.”

Steve Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist, has said President Bolsonaro will only lose if “the machines” steal the election. Representative Mark Green, a Tennessee Republican who has pushed laws combating voter fraud, met with lawmakers in Brazil to discuss “voting integrity policies.”

And President Bolsonaro’s son, Eduardo Bolsonaro, gave perhaps his most elaborate presentation on what he said were manipulated Brazilian elections in Sioux Falls, S.D. He was at an August event hosted by Mike Lindell, the pillow executive being sued for defaming voting-machine makers.

Authorities, including academics, Brazil’s electoral officials and the U.S. government, all have said that there has not been fraud in Brazil’s elections. Eduardo Bolsonaro has insisted there was. “I can’t prove — they say — that I have fraud,” he said in South Dakota. “So, OK, you can’t prove that you don’t.”

Mr. Trump’s circle has cozied up to other far-right leaders, including in Hungary, Poland and the Philippines, and tried to boost rising nationalist politicians elsewhere. But the ties are the strongest, and the stakes perhaps the highest, in Brazil.

WhatsApp groups for Bolsonaro supporters recently began circulating the trailer for a new series from Fox News host Tucker Carlson that sympathizes with the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, Mr. Nemer said. The United States, which has been a democracy for 245 years, withstood that attack. Brazil passed its constitution in 1988 after two decades under a military dictatorship.

“What concerns me is how fragile our democratic institutions are,” Mr. Nemer said.

The American interest in Brazil is not only political. Two conservative social networks run by allies of Mr. Trump, Gettr and Parler, are growing rapidly here by leaning into fears of Big Tech censorship and by persuading President Bolsonaro to post on their sites — the only world leader to do so. Mr. Trump’s own new social network, announced last month, is partially financed by a Brazilian congressman aligned with President Bolsonaro.

Beyond tech, many other American companies have benefited from President Bolsonaro’s opening to trade, including those in defense, agriculture, space and energy.

“We’re turning ideological affinity into economic interests,” said Ernesto Araújo, President Bolsonaro’s foreign minister until March.

The Trumps, the Bolsonaros, Mr. Green and Mr. Bannon did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

President Bolsonaro’s fraud claims have worried officials in the Biden administration, according to two U.S. officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity. In August, Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, traveled to Brazil and advised President Bolsonaro to respect the democratic process.

In October, 64 members of Congress asked President Biden for a reset in the United States’ relationship with Brazil, citing President Bolsonaro’s pursuit of policies that threaten democratic rule. In response, Brazil’s ambassador to the United States defended President Bolsonaro, saying debate over election security is normal in democracies. “Brazil is and will continue to be one of the world’s freest countries,” he said.

For President Bolsonaro, the Republicans’ support comes at a crucial moment. The pandemic has killed more than 610,000 Brazilians, second to only the 758,000 deaths in the United States. Unemployment and inflation have risen. He has been operating without a political party for two years. And Brazil’s Supreme Court and Congress are closing in on investigations into him, his sons and his allies.

Late last month, a Brazil congressional panel recommended that President Bolsonaro be charged with “crimes against humanity,” asserting that he intentionally let the coronavirus tear through Brazil in a bid for herd immunity. The panel blamed his administration for more than 100,000 deaths.

Minutes after the panel voted, Mr. Trump issued his endorsement. “Brazil is lucky to have a man such as Jair Bolsonaro working for them,” he said in a statement. “He is a great president and will never let the people of his great country down!”

In 2018, President Bolsonaro was carried to victory by the same populist wave that buoyed Mr. Trump. The comparisons between Mr. Bolsonaro, a former Army paratrooper with a penchant for insults and off-the-cuff tweets, and Mr. Trump were instant.

“They say he’s the Donald Trump of South America,” Mr. Trump said in 2019. “I like him.”

To many others, Mr. Bolsonaro was alarming. As a congressman and candidate, he had waxed poetic about Brazil’s military dictatorship, which tortured its political rivals. He said he would be incapable of loving a gay son. And he said a rival congresswoman was too ugly to be raped.

Three months into his term, President Bolsonaro went to Washington. At his welcome dinner, the Brazilian embassy sat him next to Mr. Bannon. At the White House later, Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro made deals that would allow the Brazilian government to spend more with the U.S. defense industry and American companies to launch rockets from Brazil.

Joining President Bolsonaro in Washington was his son, Eduardo. A congressman and former police officer, Eduardo Bolsonaro already was wearing Trump hats and posing with assault rifles on Facebook. He then emerged as Brazil’s chief liaison with the American right, visiting the United States several times a year to meet with Mr. Trump, Jared Kushner, top Republican senators and a cadre of far-right pundits and conspiracy theorists.

A few weeks after his father was elected, Eduardo Bolsonaro went to Mr. Bannon’s birthday party and was treated as “the guest of honor,” said Márcio Coimbra, a Brazilian political consultant who was also there.

Two months later, Mr. Bannon announced Eduardo Bolsonaro would represent South America in The Movement, a right-wing, nationalist group that Mr. Bannon envisioned taking over the Western world. In the news release, Eduardo Bolsonaro said they would “reclaim sovereignty from progressive globalist elitist forces.”

Before the pandemic, President Bolsonaro had been good for American business.

The Trump and Bolsonaro administrations signed pacts to increase commerce. American investors plowed billions of dollars into Brazilian companies. And Brazil spent more on American imports, including fuel, plastics and aircraft.

Now a new class of companies is salivating over Brazil: conservative social networks.

Gettr and Parler, two Twitter clones, have grown rapidly in Brazil by promising a hands-off approach to people who believe Silicon Valley is censoring conservative voices. One of their most high-profile recruits is President Bolsonaro.

Gettr’s chief executive, Jason Miller, is Mr. Trump’s former spokesman. He said that President Bolsonaro and his sons’ activity on his site has been a major boost for business. The four-month-old app already has nearly 500,000 users in Brazil, or 15 percent of its user base, its second-largest market after the United States. Gettr is now advertising on conservative Brazilian YouTube channels. “I had Brazil identified from day one,” he said.

Parler said Brazil is also its No. 2 market. Both companies sponsored CPAC in Brazil. “We cannot allow them to silence us,” Candace Owens, the conservative pundit, said in a video pitching Parler at CPAC.

Gettr is partly funded by Guo Wengui, an exiled Chinese billionaire who is close with Mr. Bannon. (When Mr. Bannon was arrested on fraud charges, he was on Mr. Guo’s yacht.) Parler is funded by Rebekah Mercer, the American conservative megadonor who was Mr. Bannon’s previous benefactor.

Companies like Gettr and Parler could prove critical to President Bolsonaro. Like Mr. Trump, he built his political movement with social media. But now Facebook, YouTube and Twitter are more aggressively policing hate speech and misinformation. They blocked Mr. Trump and have started cracking down on President Bolsonaro. Last month, YouTube suspended his channel for a week after he falsely suggested coronavirus vaccines could cause AIDS.

In response, President Bolsonaro has tried to ban the companies from removing certain posts and accounts, but his policy was overturned. Now he has been directing his supporters to follow him elsewhere, including on Gettr, Parler and Telegram, a messaging app based in Dubai.

He will likely soon have another option. Last month, Mr. Trump announced he was starting his own social network. The company financing his new venture is partly led by Luiz Philippe de Orleans e Bragança, a Brazilian congressman and Bolsonaro ally.

On the day of the Capitol riot, Eduardo Bolsonaro was in Washington. When asked later, he said the rioters’ efforts were weak. “If it were organized, they would have taken the Capitol and made demands,” he said.

The day after the riot, President Bolsonaro warned that Brazil was “going to have a worse problem” if it didn’t change its own electoral systems, which rely on voting machines without paper backups. (Last week, he suddenly changed his tune after announcing that he would have Brazil’s armed forces monitor the election.)

Diego Aranha, a Brazilian computer scientist who studies the country’s election systems, said that Brazil’s system does make elections more vulnerable to attacks — but that there has been no evidence of fraud.

“Bolsonaro turned a technical point into a political weapon,” he said.

President Bolsonaro’s American allies have helped spread his claims.

At the CPAC in Brazil, Donald Trump Jr. told the audience that if they didn’t think the Chinese were aiming to undermine their election, “you haven’t been watching.” Mr. Bannon has called President Bolsonaro’s likely opponent, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a “transnational, Marxist criminal” and “the most dangerous leftist in the world.” Mr. da Silva served 18 months in prison but his corruption charges were later tossed out by a Supreme Court justice.

Eduardo Bolsonaro’s slide show detailing claims of Brazilian voter fraud, delivered in South Dakota, was broadcast by One America News, a conservative cable network that reaches 35 million U.S. households. It was also translated into Portuguese and viewed nearly 600,000 times on YouTube and Facebook.

After his presentation, Mr. Bannon declared “Bolsonaro will win,” unless the elections are “stolen by, guess what, the machines.”

Both Mr. Bannon’s and Mr. Trump Jr.’s comments were translated into Portuguese and shared on Facebook by Bia Kicis, a conservative Brazilian congresswoman. They have been viewed more than 330,000 times.

The first week of September was a critical moment for the Bolsonaro presidency. Facing political crises, he called for nationwide demonstrations on Sept. 7, Brazil’s Independence Day, to protest his enemies in the Supreme Court and on the left.

The weekend before, just down the road from the presidential palace, Mr. Bolsonaro’s closest allies gathered at CPAC. Eduardo Bolsonaro and the American Conservative Union, the Republican lobbying group that runs CPAC, organized the event. Eduardo Bolsonaro’s political committee mostly financed it. Tickets sold out.

The American Conservative Union paid about $15,000 to send Mr. Green, the Tennessee Republican, according to a lobbying disclosure. His planned agenda included a discussion, over lunch, of voting laws with two Brazilian members of Congress who pushed to change Brazil’s.

During the conference, the head of Project Veritas, the conservative group that secretly records journalists to try to expose liberal bias, told the audience that he aimed to expand to Brazil.

Afterward, Eduardo Bolsonaro brought several Americans to the presidential palace. Mr. Miller of Gettr and two men connected to Project Veritas sat outside with President Bolsonaro and his sons, in view of the nearly Olympic-size swimming pool. President Bolsonaro was barefoot and in a soccer jersey. The Americans were in suits. They talked for more than an hour, Mr. Miller said. The Brazilians wanted to “kick the tires” on Gettr, he said.

The next day, Brazil’s federal police detained Mr. Miller at the airport. A Supreme Court judge had ordered police to question him about how Gettr might be used to spread misinformation in Brazil. “It was just farcical,” Mr. Miller said.

Eventually, Mr. Miller’s friend called Eduardo Bolsonaro and asked for a lawyer, according to police records. After the lawyer arrived, so did a senior adviser to President Bolsonaro. The lawyer requested the police not mention the adviser in their reports because, she said, he was there as her boyfriend, according to the records. The police mentioned him. He is not her boyfriend, they said.

At the same time, hundreds of thousands of Bolsonaro supporters in yellow and green were filling the national esplanade in Brasília. Pro-Bolsonaro banners hung from government buildings.

President Bolsonaro gave a fiery speech. Then he flew to São Paulo, where he used Mr. Miller’s detainment as evidence of judicial overreach. He told the crowd he would no longer recognize decisions from a Supreme Court judge.

He then turned to the election.

“We have three alternatives for me: Prison, death or victory,” he said. “Tell the bastards I’ll never be arrested.”

Leonardo Coelho and Kenneth P. Vogel contributed reporting.

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