A bizarre dispute between a property formerly managed by the Trump Organization is now threatening to fulfill the warnings of ethics watchdogs, as for the first time lawyers representing the Trump business have sought the intervention from a world leader, apparently leveraging their company’s connection to the U.S. president.
On Tuesday, the Associated Press reported that attorneys representing the former Trump Hotel in Panama City sent a letter on March 22 to President Juan Carlos Varela to “URGENTLY” request “influence in relation to a commercial dispute regarding the Trump hotel.”
The letter, which was written in Spanish by the Panama-based law firm Britton and Iglesias and copied to Panamanian Cabinet officials and the presidents of the Supreme Court and National Assembly, warned that the way the Trump Organization was being mistreated by the Panamanian justice system, which sided with the hotel’s majority owner in the dramatic dispute, threatened to violate a 1983 treaty between the two countries, according to the Washington Post, which obtained a copy of the letter. It warned that the situation could have “repercussions” for the country’s reputation.
“We appreciate your influence in order to avoid that these damages are attributed not to the other party, but to the Panamanian government,” the letter said. According to the Post, the letter never explicitly mentions Donald Trump or any concrete repercussions.
The lawyers defended the action as a “common” and “routine” tactic and said they didn’t consult with the Trump Organization before sending the letter.
According to the Post, a spokesman for the Panamanian president said that Varela has seen the letter and is “evaluating the issue” but has not yet taken any action. Others who received the letter told the Post they did not feel they had a role to play in the dispute. “It is a letter that urges Panama’s executive branch to interfere in an issue clearly of the judicial branch,” Foreign Secretary Isabel de Saint Malo said. “I don’t believe the executive branch has a position to take while the issue is in the judicial process.”
The situation has only worsened for the company since the letter was sent, as later in March, an international arbitrator declined to reinstate the Trump Organization as manager of the hotel.
The conflict began last year when the investor Orestes Fintiklis became majority owner of the luxury high rise and immediately began accusing the Trump Organization of mismanagement that drove down the hotel’s occupancy. He also blamed the president’s brand for warding off potential customers and tried to fire the Trump business. The Trump Organization argued that their contract was good to the year 2031 and Fintiklis had no valid reason to break the contract. The two sides took the dispute to an arbitrator.
The conflict came to a head in early March, when Fintiklis tried again to evict the Trump Organization employees from the building and Fintiklis’ security guards tussled with Trump Organization security guards. After Panamanian police broke up the fight and one Trump guard was arrested for blocking an officer’s attempt to enter the hotel’s administrative offices, Fintiklis entered the hotel, tried to fire nine Trump employees, couldn’t find them, and walked over to the piano to play Beethoven’s “Für Elise” on the lobby piano, to a round of applause from his employees.
Finally, armed agents evicted the staff, and a low-level Panamanian judge ruled on the side of Fintiklis. The hotel was renamed “The Bahia Grand Panama.” According to the Post, the hotel bar has drinks called the “Stormy Jack Daniels” and the “Fire and Fury.”
The possibility that Trump properties in other countries could influence diplomacy and international policy caused ethics watchdogs to call on Trump to divest from his business. In a move that failed to satisfy them, he put his sons in charge of the business but remained an owner, meaning he can still withdraw money from the business at any time.