Brazil's president calls graft charge 'soap opera'

Brasília (AFP) - Brazil's President Michel Temer defiantly rejected a bribery charge against him as a "soap opera" on Tuesday, saying there is no proof and vowing to fight on.

"The charge is a fiction," Temer said in his first public reaction since the country's top prosecutor, Rodrigo Janot, filed the corruption charge with the Supreme Court late Monday.

"Where is the concrete proof of my receiving this money?" Temer asked as he made a nationally televised statement at the presidential palace in Brasilia.

Temer attacked Janot for creating "a soap opera plot" that sought to "paralyze" Latin America's biggest country as it tries to exit a painful recession.

"I will not allow myself to be accused of crimes that I did not commit. My intention is to work for Brazil. I will not shirk the battles," he said.

Temer, the first sitting president of Brazil to face criminal charges, is accused of accepting bribes from a giant meatpacking company.

He is also under investigation for obstruction of justice and belonging to a criminal organization.

If the lower house of Congress votes by a two-thirds majority to accept the charge, the center-right president would be suspended for 180 days and face trial in the Supreme Court.

However, Temer's aides say they are confident he has sufficient support in the scandal-plagued Congress -- where dozens of lawmakers have been caught up in the same sweeping graft probe -- to get the charge thrown out.

A source in the presidency, speaking on condition of anonymity, told AFP that the task of securing at least one-third of the votes in the lower house would not be "the end of the world."

Janot responded to Temer's statement, insisting "there is masses of evidence... leaving no doubt about the substance or the authorship of the crime of passive corruption."

- Unpopular but resistant -

Many regular Brazilians say they are losing faith in all their politicians.

Temer's latest approval ratings are just seven percent, lower even than his leftist predecessor Dilma Rousseff, whom he replaced last year when she was impeached and removed from office by his congressional allies for the relatively technical fault of breaking budgetary rules.

"Of course you could switch the political class with other people but the most corrupt ones in this whole affair would probably escape unharmed," said Nicolas Crapez, 34, on his way to work at the state government in Rio de Janeiro.

But with the public so far failing to exert pressure in the streets, as happened during mass demonstrations against Rousseff, Congress may prefer to keep its head down.

Many lawmakers are themselves facing corruption investigations. Also, there is no agreement on a corruption-free consensus candidate who could fill Temer's shoes until scheduled elections in October 2018 if he were removed.

Still, Janot appears intent on denying Temer an opportunity to clear his name quickly, since the bribery charge is likely to be followed separately by others -- each one going to the lower house of Congress for a vote.

Public anger at Temer could eventually intensify.

One of his strongest comments Tuesday, stating "I don't know how God put me here," immediately came in for withering mockery on social media, with memes juxtaposing the words alongside comic photos such as a cow stuck on a telegraph pole.

- Cash and secret tape -

The bribery charge is linked to the arrest of a close former presidential aide caught carrying a suitcase stuffed with 500,000 reais (about $150,000) in cash that prosecutors say was part of payments from JBS meatpacking executives to Temer.

Temer acted "in violation of his duties to the state and to society," Janot said, citing "abundant" proof of bribe taking.

Temer says that his former aide was acting independently and that there is nothing to link him to the suitcase. The aide is in detention facing corruption charges, but has so far refused to cooperate with prosecutors.

Meanwhile, the obstruction of justice investigation accuses Temer of approving a plan with Joesley Batista, owner of JBS parent company J&F, to pay hush money to a politician jailed for corruption.

Batista secretly recorded Temer allegedly discussing the hush money and gave the recording to prosecutors in a plea bargain to secure leniency in his own corruption case.