How Brazil's leader built bond with Trump and won his support in Amazon fires dispute
By DAVID NAKAMURA | The Washington Post | Published: August 31, 2019
President Donald Trump was preparing for the Group of Seven summit in France when he learned that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro was trying to reach him. Trump told aides to patch the call through.
Bolsonaro got right to the point: The powerful G-7 countries, including France and Canada, were unfairly ganging up on Brazil over their criticism of his government's response to massive fires ravaging the Amazon rainforest. Since Brazil is not a G-7 member, he told Trump, it was in danger of being "left without a voice," according to a senior Trump administration official familiar with their call.
Trump did not hesitate. "Absolutely, we will be a voice for Brazil," the president responded, said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
Within days, Trump delivered as promised. French President Emmanuel Macron announced at the end of last weekend's G-7 meetings that member nations had approved a $22 million emergency aid package to help combat the fires, but the Trump administration did not support the measure, insisting that any solution should be done in consultation with Brazil, senior White House aides said this week.
In a tweet after the summit - as Bolsonaro threatened to reject the aid money in a feud with Macron that included personal insults - Trump praised Bolsonaro for "working very hard on the Amazon fires and in all respects doing a great job for the people of Brazil."
The episode illustrated the success Bolsonaro has had in forging a bond with Trump since sweeping to a surprise election in October behind promises to "make Brazil great again." A far-right nationalist initially viewed as a long shot, Bolsonaro unabashedly modeled himself after Trump, weaponizing social media, bullying rivals and courting the Trump administration by promising strong support for Israel, pressure on socialist regimes in Venezuela and Cuba and newfound potential for bilateral trade.
For that, he earned a special moniker: "Trump of the tropics."
The charm offensive has paid off with a U.S. president eager for acclamation and validation. Trump was the first foreign leader to personally congratulate Bolsonaro after his election, placing a call within an hour of the victory - after national security adviser John Bolton made clear to White House aides that Trump wanted to be the first.
Trump "likes to see himself as the leader of a movement, a global movement, and part of that is to see that the movement is spreading," said Fernando Cutz, who served as director for Western Hemisphere affairs at the National Security Council during Trump's first year and a half in office. Cutz said Trump grew intrigued by Bolsonaro given the comparisons between the two during Bolsonaro's campaign.
"It helped that Bolsonaro embraced that title and did not run away from it," Cutz said of comparisons. To Trump, "that's a huge plus."
Yet to congressional Democrats, the personal chemistry between the leaders represents another example of the president cozying up to a world leader with anti-democratic, strongman tendencies, sometimes at the expense of U.S. allies.
A former national legislator, Bolsonaro earned infamy with a series of bigoted, sexist and homophobic comments, as well as attacks on immigrants. He responded to a female lawmaker who accused him of encouraging rape by saying: "I wouldn't rape you because you don't deserve it."
Bolsonaro, who promised during his campaign to withdraw Brazil from the 2015 Paris climate accord, has drawn international criticism for his stewardship of the Amazon. He has fought back aggressively, denouncing foreign leaders for threatening Brazilian sovereignty and accusing his critics of starting some of the fires to make him look bad.
On Friday, Eduardo Bolsonaro, the president's youngest son, and Brazilian Foreign Minister Ernesto Araújo visited the White House to discuss the situation with national security staff, and they gained a briefing audience with Trump.
Araújo told reporters in the West Wing driveway that Trump reiterated his belief that "it was absurd that some countries think Brazil should not have sovereignty over the Amazon in some way. We're grateful for that stance."
Democrats in Congress have been critical of Trump's embrace of Bolsonaro.
"The one thing that has really drawn our attention is just how far Trump himself has been willing to bend over backward for Bolsonaro," said one Democratic aide on Capitol Hill, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter frankly.
At a bipartisan Senate meeting with Brazilian Vice President Hamilton Mourão in April, according to people who were present, Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J. pressed Mourão on human rights.
Democrats have also raised objections over the fact that Bolsonaro publicly endorsed Trump's reelection during a Rose Garden news conference after their first bilateral meeting at the White House in March.
In addition to Trump, President Bolsonaro and his top aides have courted prominent U.S. conservatives, including Stephen Bannon, the former White House adviser who attended a small, private dinner with Bolsonaro in Washington.
Eduardo Bolsonaro, a national legislator in Brazil, also has met with White House adviser Jared Kushner, the president's son-in-law, and with Donald Trump Jr.
One U.S. official said Eduardo Bolsonaro started meeting with administration aides before his father was elected, showing up with carefully crafted talking points, including support for Trump's North Korea policy and echoing Trump by citing the need to overcome a "deep state" bureaucracy in Brazil.
A member of Brazil's National Congress, Eduardo Bolsonaro is in line to be nominated by his father as the next ambassador to Washington, a move Trump has publicly endorsed despite charges of nepotism from some Brazilian politicians.
The Bolsonaros are "completely fascinated with Trump," said Paulo Sotero, a Latin America expert at the Wilson Center who visited Brazil this past week.
The family has indicated that they intend to "satisfy President Trump, which is what President Trump likes to hear," Sotero said, adding that "there will be serious pushback in Brazil."
White House aides expressed satisfaction that the two countries are drawing closer. Since Bolsonaro took office in January, he and Trump have met twice - first at the White House and again in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka, Japan.
The Trump administration has rewarded Bolsonaro by publicly supporting Brazil's bid to join the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and elevating Brazil to the status of a major non-NATO ally - over the objections of some Democrats.
During the Rose Garden news conference in March, Trump raised the possibility of installing Brazil as a full-fledged NATO member - even though it is not eligible given that the country is not located in the North Atlantic.
Aides said Trump first broached the subject during his working lunch with Bolsonaro. Patrick Shanahan, then the acting defense secretary, had just finished briefing on security matters when Trump surprised the room by asking Bolton whether it was possible for Brazil to gain full NATO membership.
"Why not?" Trump demanded, according to multiple people who were present.
"Bolton said something like, 'That would really turn heads,' " said one person who was in the room and spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private conversation.
"I was taken by surprise," said Sergio Amaral, who as Brazil's ambassador to Washington was also in the room. Amaral, who stepped down from his post in May, added in an interview: "After the lunch, there was a follow-up with some important advisers to President Trump. They assessed about how that could work because there are some restrictions."
White House aides confirmed that they have explored the legal possibilities and floated the idea to European allies.
Republicans on Capitol Hill praised the growing partnership. An aide to Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., said that "previous administrations were not as aligned with our democratic values as Bolsonaro is. It's a breath of fresh air from our point of view."
But others have viewed the relationship more skeptically. Analysts said Bolsonaro is trying to hedge against the growing influence of China - Brazil's top trading partner - and they cautioned that achieving a trade deal with Brazil will be challenging given the country's entrenched agricultural lobbies.
Bolsonaro has struggled to follow through on other promises that aimed to please Trump. He has backed off pledges to move Brazil's embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and to withdraw from the Paris climate accord.
Even the increased cooperation with the United States on security and defense is a risk, said Guilherme Casarões, an international relations professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, a university in Sao Paulo.
"If the United States wants to embark on a military venture in Venezuela or Iran, it is very possible that they will call for Brazilian help," he said. "Brazil's help would not be military or strategy focused; Brazil doesn't have many resources to contribute. But it would legitimize an American military action."
Yet despite the policy obstacles, Bolsonaro views Trump's success in upending the conservative movement in the United States as useful in his political goals, analysts said.
Chris Buskirk, publisher of the journal American Greatness, was among the dozen or so conservatives who, along with Bannon and Amaral, dined with Bolsonaro at the Brazilian ambassador's residence in March. Buskirk said he marveled at the Bolsonaro team's intimate familiarity with the debate over conservatism in the United States.
"They were looking to American conservative intellectual history as a way to figure out their next best steps," he said.
Bannon was so impressed that he named Eduardo Bolsonaro as the chief representative in South America for his global populist organization, known as the Movement.
Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union, who also was present at the dinner, said he and Eduardo Bolsonaro have arranged to hold a National Conservative Political Action Committee event in Brazil in October.
"I consider him a friend," Schlapp said. "We've shared ideas on the ways that the movement in each country can collaborate." Last week, Schlapp, whose wife, Mercedes, served as the strategic communications director at the White House until departing in July, used a tweet to take Brazil's side in the dispute with Macron over the management of the Amazon.
Some in Brazil have raised concerns that Bolsonaro is establishing a back-channel to bypass formal diplomatic avenues to influence Trump.
But a senior Trump administration official insisted that the White House has not been lobbied by conservative outsiders and pointed out that Bolsonaro has an open line to the president.
"If they want to talk to the White House, they can do what Bolsonaro did last week - pick up the phone and call," the official said. "We're only a phone call away."
The Washington Post's Marina Lopes in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.