One might think that with dozens of scandals swirling around President Trump, his business would be very careful not to do anything that could be construed as inappropriate. But hey, what’s the point of working for the president if you can’t use his position to sway business dealings in your favor?
That appears to be the thinking behind a letter Trump Organization attorneys sent to Panamanian president Juan Carlos Varela last month, warning that there could be “repercussions” for Panama’s reputation if he declined to intervene in a dispute involving the Trump International Hotel in Panama City — though that would involve violating the nation’s separation of powers by having Varela meddle with the judicial branch.
The problem started in February, when the hotel’s majority owner, Orestes Fintiklis, tried to fire the Trump Organization as its manager, alleging mismanagement by local officials and damage to the Trump brand. Last month Panamanian judicial officials sided with Fintiklis, allowing him to kick the Trump team off the property and rename it the Bahia Grand Panama.
In the March 22 letter to President Varela, the Panama-based law firm Britton and Iglesias wrote in Spanish to “urgently request your influence in relation to a commercial dispute regarding the Trump hotel,” according to the Washington Post.
The Trump Organization lawyers weren’t clear about what they wanted Varela to do, but they asserted the company had been treated so poorly by the nation’s courts that it amounted to a violation of a 1983 investment treaty between the two nations. “We appreciate your influence in order to avoid that these damages are attributed not to the other party, but to the Panamanian government,” said the letter.
While Trump’s role as U.S. president is not mentioned, the letter notes, the dispute could affect the entire nation. “This situation is currently before the courts, but it has repercussions for the Panamanian state, which is your responsibility,” it said.
The move backfired as an arbitrator ruled days later against reinstating the Trump Organization, though he agreed that the company should not have been kicked out while the arbitration was ongoing.
A Varela spokesperson told the Post that he is still “evaluating the issue,” and had not decided wether to intervene. Multiple government officials were copied on the letter, and a spokesperson for Panama’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs dismissed the request, saying, “this is about differences between businesses, a case already attended by the court. This is not a bilateral matter between governments and not even a political issue.”
The Trump Organization released a statement on behalf of Britton and Iglesias, saying the letter was a “common” and “routine” legal tactic, and they had not sought their client’s approval before sending it.
“We categorically reject any assumption or assertion that the letter sought to ‘pressure’ the President of the Republic of Panama,” or other officials, the statement said. “The authorization of Trump Organization for its delivery was not requested, and nobody at Trump Organization was aware [of] the letter until today.”
Regardless, ethics experts said this is the kind of thing they were worried about when they argued that Trump should fully divest himself from his business upon becoming president. Instead, he gave his sons Eric and Don Jr. day-to-day management of the Trump Organization while maintaining full control of the business.
“This could be the clearest example we’ve seen of a conflict of interest stemming from the president’s role as head of state in connection with other countries and his business interests,” Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, told the AP.