President Jair Bolsonaro takes off his protective mask to speak to journalists in Brasilia during a March news conference about the coronavirus outbreak.
Sao Paulo CNN  — 

Brazil’s highest court has authorized an investigation into allegations that President Jair Bolsonaro sought to interfere with police investigations.

The decision ratchets up pressure on Bolsonaro, who is under fire over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and a looming economic crisis.

The allegations against Bolsonaro were made by Sergio Moro, a popular anti-corruption crusader, when he announced he was stepping down as justice minister last week.

Moro’s departure followed Bolsonaro’s decision to replace the head of Brazil’s federal police, a move Moro described as “political interference” in an area that he said should be controlled by the justice ministry.

During a news conference, Moro said the only reason Bolsonaro wanted to appoint a new police chief was because he wanted someone in that position over whom he had influence.

“The President said more than once that he wanted someone he could be in touch with personally, who he could call directly, who he could receive information from, intelligence reports,” he said.

Without giving details, Moro also said the change came about because Bolsonaro was “concerned about pending cases before the supreme court.”

Moro also denied signing – or even having any knowledge of – the official bulletin announcing the dismissal of the police chief.

President denies wrongdoing

Brazil’s attorney general asked the supreme court to open an investigation into the allegations which could implicate Bolsonaro in obstruction of justice and late Monday Justice Celso de Mello gave the probe the green light. De Mello said the federal police have 60 days to look into the matter.

De Mello said in a news release that not even the President “is above the authority of the Constitution and the laws of the republic.”

Bolsonaro has denied any wrongdoing and called Moro a “liar.”

“He talked about my ‘political interference’ in the federal police. If I can replace a minister, why can’t I replace the director of the federal police? I don’t have to ask anyone for permission,” Bolsonaro said during a televised address. He also said he has never asked for privileged information about ongoing investigations and said that the police chief had asked to step down and was not fired.

Brazilians around the country banged pots and honked horns during the speech in protest against Bolsonaro and what has been seen by many as a move to force Moro out.

Moro gained prominence as the judge who led the fight against corruption in the so-called Car Wash investigation, which unearthed a network of kickbacks that ultimately led to the imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and other officials.

Moro’s resignation came just a week after Bolsonaro fired his health minister. They had repeatedly clashed over Brazil’s response to the coronavirus outbreak, with Bolsonaro insisting the quarantine measures promoted by the minister would cause more damage than the virus itself. Brazil’s economy is now expected to shrink 5% this year according to the World Bank.

Support for Bolsonaro has eroded amid the pandemic, but according to a poll conducted by Datafolha after Moro’s departure, 33% of Brazilians still think he is doing a “good job,” compared with 38% who think he is doing a “terrible job” or 26% who think his performance is average.

On Tuesday, Bolsonaro appointed Andre Mendonca as the country’s new justice minister. Mendonca is an attorney who held the post of solicitor general of the union and was previously attorney general of Brazil.

Bolsonaro named the head of the Brazilian intelligence agency, Alexandre Ramagem, as the new federal police chief.