After Dilma Rousseff was removed from Brazil’s presidency in May facing charges of administrative misconduct, Vice President Michel Temer became interim president. He set out to hire a first-rate economic team to guide Brazil out of its recession, but “Operation Car Wash,” a sprawling federal corruption investigation that began with sweetheart contracts from the state oil company, has already forced three of his ministers to resign. In his Brasilia office, Temer granted his first foreign interview since taking over to The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth. They discussed the Olympics, Zika and the presidential crisis. Edited excerpts follow.
Three of your cabinet members have already been forced to resign due to corruption allegations. Isn’t it difficult to govern while charges are flying around and ministers are resigning? Are more ministers going to go?
Operation Car Wash, or Lava Jato, doesn’t hinder the actions of the government. Obviously, we support any investigation.
It includes your own cabinet.
These people have not been charged with crimes. We said that if any of the ministers or any of the members of government were facing accusations, they would be removed.
Then Sergio Machado, a former head of Transpetro [a subsidiary of Petrobras, the state oil company], said in his plea bargain that you’d asked him for money for a candidate who was running for mayor of Sao Paulo. What is your response to that?
I made a public statement about this situation. What Mr. Sergio Machado actually said is that I requested funds, not for myself, but for a candidate who was running for mayor. But there was no request on my part, because I do not have a close relationship with him. I would never ask that, not even if I had a close relationship with him.
So it wasn’t true?
I would like to highlight that I have been in public office for 33 years. I was three times speaker of the House of Representatives. I was twice [elected] vice president of the country. So I would never have to go to Mr. Sergio Machado to request anything.
If you are planning to ask for enormous economic sacrifice from the Brazilian people, is it a problem that you are not an elected president?
But I was elected vice president. Here in Brazil the president and the vice president are elected together. Nevertheless, opposition parties are claiming that there was a coup and that there should be presidential elections. But there is only a coup if you violate the constitution, and this is not the case.
It is Dilma Rousseff, your predecessor, who claims that there has been a coup.
Was there a moment where you thought enough was enough with Dilma?
I thought that the government was going in the wrong direction, so eight months ago I launched the document “Bridge for the Future.” From then on, I recognized that there was a separation, a split, between the president and the vice president, which resulted in the PMDB, my party, leaving the government.
People say that Dilma just didn’t like to deal with Congress. Was that so?
This is something that the previous administration lacked, definitely.
Did you think that she was corrupt?
She might have committed administrative mistakes, but I wouldn’t call her corrupt. I would be unable to tell you if this was corruption or not.
Didn’t your administration reveal that Dilma was running a far larger deficit than she declared?
Yes, her figures showed $27 billion. We actually saw that it was approximately $48 billion.
Will she be impeached?
That is for the Senate to say. In a month and a half, we probably will know.
Right in the middle of the Olympic Games?
Yes, regrettably. It will do the country no good to have two presidents in the beginning of the Olympic Games and at the opening ceremony.
Do you think that Brazil is just addicted to corruption? In your system, the president has to go and get votes from the parties in Congress. To get the votes, they have to give favors to the parties. So isn’t it endemic in the way the system is set up?
I wouldn’t say that it is an endemic problem. I would say that corruption is individualized. It is Congressman A or B or C. The criticism that might be made of our system and would require a political reform is the large number of political parties that we have. We have 32. We need a rule that says only political parties that receive a certain number of minimum votes would be represented.
Today you could get 1 percent and get into parliament?
Even less than that.
Dilma’s party, the Workers’ Party, was nominating its members to positions with Petrobras and with pension funds. The postal workers have virtually nothing left in their pension fund. Weren’t the party members stealing, essentially?
Yes, we will have a law to prevent this type of thing from happening.
But this was under Dilma, right?
It started before that.
It started under her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, right?
[Their party was] in the administration, and they thought that they could occupy all of the positions.
But some people say that your party benefited, too. Do you think that is unfair?
Some individuals might have benefited, but not the party.
Brazil had a negative growth rate last year of 3.8 percent, and it’s on the path to insolvency. There are only two ways for you to go. One is to raise taxes, and the other is to cut spending. How do you see getting out of the economic morass that you are in?
We won’t be imposing new taxes as of now. We are considering reducing public expenditures. As soon as I took office, we cut nine of the federal ministries, and we also cut 4,200 political jobs. The government’s first intent is to cut expenditures, and only in a second situation would we impose taxes. Taxes are not being considered as of now.
You have a good economic team and sent Congress a plan to impose austerity measures. Will it pass?
We are working intensely to remove our country from the economic crisis in which it finds itself. We sent a proposal to limit public expenditures, and at the outset we could face some resistance. . . . We will have pension reform very soon in Brazil. One of the central points is to establish a minimum age for retirement. . . . People will only be able to retire once they reach 65 years.
Many believe you are doing the right thing by imposing austerity measures, but at the same time you have this terrible economy and the population is suffering. So won’t these measures that you are introducing be very unpopular?
They may not be popular at first, but they will be understood. Because today we have 11 million people who are unemployed, and these people want to get jobs once again.
Didn’t Rio declare bankruptcy?
Rio is a special case, and we are opening a special credit line so that we can guarantee a smooth Olympic Games.
How do you feel about the Olympics? Some people are worried about an ISIS-inspired attack.
Everything is under control here. We already had three meetings with the team in charge of security for the Olympic Games. I can assure you that everything is going smoothly, and security will not be a problem.
Athletes complained about swimming in contaminated water.
This is being solved by the municipal administration of Rio de Janeiro. I recently visited the Olympic park, and I can tell you that they are taking care of all of the problems.
And what about Zika?
First, we combatted very thoroughly the spread of the mosquito that transmits the Zika virus. And the weather will also work in our favor, because we are in the middle of winter, and in winter this mosquito does not proliferate as much.
But it is a threat to your country, the disease?
Not now. Six months ago, yes. But not now.
So do you feel like you are getting it under control?
Yes, it is under control.
If you do a brilliant job and get the economy in better shape and restore growth, you said you wouldn’t run again for president. Why not?
I hope to win the applause of the population, and I hope to leave a legacy in history, but that is it. Without being pretentious, I have had a very successful public life, and this ending would satisfy me.
So meanwhile, you’ll support the Car Wash investigation, no matter where it goes?
I have declared my support several times already, but obviously I am in the executive branch, and I believe in the independence of the different branches, so I will never interfere.
People in the United States noted with enthusiasm that your new foreign minister, José Serra, spoke strongly about human rights in Venezuela.
Venezuela actually provoked us in the beginning, because they claimed that there was actually a coup taking place in Brazil. That is why the minister of foreign affairs and I decided that it was necessary to give a strong response.
That is why you responded? I would have liked to think it was out of conviction.
Yes, we very strongly defend democracy, compliance with the constitution, with the law, with human rights. Definitely, Brazil has a very strong position on these matters.
Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor at The Washington Post.