Lawyers for President Donald Trump’s private company warned Panama’s president last month of “repercussions” if he failed to intervene in a legal dispute involving a Trump hotel in Panama City, The Associated Press and The Washington Post reported Tuesday.
The letter from Trump Organization lawyers is believed to be the first time since Trump’s election that his company directly pressured a head of state to help the president’s business. The ploy raises fresh questions of conflict of interest, as Trump defiantly hangs onto his sprawling business interests while in office.
Trump lawyers sought the Panamanian president’s help after the majority owner of the Trump International Hotel and Tower — investor Orestes Fintiklis — ejected the Trump Organization as the hotel’s manager under a court order. Fintiklis, backed by police, escorted Trump personnel off the property, stripped the Trump name from the building facade and celebrated by playing a Greek anti-fascism song on a lobby piano.
Trump’s company wants President Juan Carlos Varela to help it retake control. Lawyers from the Panamanian firm Britton and Iglesias wrote to “urgently request your influence in relation to a commercial dispute regarding the Trump hotel,” according to the letter obtained by the Post and the AP, which first reported the story. “This situation is currently before the courts, but it has repercussions for the Panamanian state, which is your responsibility,” the letter warned.
The letter brushed aside concerns about the separation of power between the executive branch and the judiciary, which exists in Panama just as it does in the U.S. It also suggested the hotel dispute may violate a treaty between the two nations.
The Trump Organization’s direct appeal to Varela, and its treaty reference, “implicitly traded on President Trump’s name and power,” University of Minnesota political governance expert Lawrence Jacobs told AP.
Varela hasn’t decided what action to take, a spokesman told the Post. Five days after the letter was sent, a court arbitrator ruled against reinstating the Trump Organization management team, suggesting the direct appeal had failed.
The Trump Organization said in a statement that the letter was “routine” and “common.”
“We categorically reject any assumption or assertion that the letter sought to ‘pressure’ the president of the Republic of Panama,” the company said.
The White House referred questions about the letter to the Trump Organization.
Unlike previous presidents, Trump has refused to divest from his business interests. His company has extensive holdings in foreign countries.
“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 Post.