New letter reopens Trump’s Panama hotel debacle

Did the White House threaten Panama's leader if he didn't side with Trump in a business dispute?

Congressional officials want to know what role Trump played in a threat against Panama's president. CREDIT: GETTY / STR
Congressional officials want to know what role Trump played in a threat against Panama's president. CREDIT: GETTY / STR

After new hotel management booted the Trump Organization from President Donald Trump’s former high-rise in Panama, the dramatic episode — which featured scuffles between security guards, police in body armor, and plummeting occupancy rates — appeared to be coming to a close.

However, a letter issued in late March from a Panama-based law firm reopened the entire affair, and cast Trump’s involvement in a new light.

The letter, first reported by the AP, was sent from the Britton & Iglesias law firm to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela. In it, the lawyers point to potential repercussions for Panama should Varela not intervene in the Trump Organization’s favor. It’s unclear what specific steps the law firm wanted Varela to take, other than intervening in judicial affairs.

While the letter doesn’t mention Trump, it hints that the White House might claim Panama was violating a bilateral investment treaty if it did not help the Trump Organization’s case at the building, which is now known as the Bahia Grand. 


To his credit, in mid-April Valera dismissed the letter, telling the AP that the lawyers “made a mistake in sending the letter.” Added Varela, “You have to leave your private interests aside and focus on the interests of your people.”

A spokesperson for Britton & Iglesias told ThinkProgress that the law firm hasn’t yet heard a response directly from Varela.

The letter presents perhaps the foremost example of Trump’s private interests conflicting with American interests abroad — to say nothing of requesting that Varela consider breaching the country’s separation of powers.

A trio of American lawmakers would like to know why the law firm got involved in the first place, and what role Trump might have played in the threat.


In an April 25 letter to Trump Organization general counsel Alan Garten, Rep. Norma Torres (D-CA), Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY), and Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-NY) requested information on whether “the Trump Organization sought to leverage the Office of the President and the diplomatic relationship between the United States and Panama to advance the company’s private interests.”

The lawmakers’ letter also pointed to the Panamanian law firm’s call for Varela to intervene directly in judicial proceedings:

By requesting that the President of Panama intercede in a judicial proceeding—in President Trump’s name, no less—the letter shows a lack of respect for judicial independence in Panama, a country that has made considerable efforts to strengthen the capacity of its legal system to combat money laundering and corruption. It is troubling that the President of the United States would be among the principal beneficiaries of such a violation of the principle of judicial independence, and we applaud the President of Panama for his refusal to intercede in the legal proceedings in question.

Torres, Engel, and Nadler concluded the letter with a series of requests, including asking for information about whether Britton & Iglesias sent its letter directly “at the request of President Trump or any other government official,” or if Trump or the Trump Organization had made any other attempt to contact Varela regarding the ongoing dispute.


“What other communications has the Trump Organization, or any organization representing the Trump Organization, made with other foreign government officials with regards to Trump Organization properties, since President Trump assumed office?” the lawmakers ask.

A spokesperson for Torres told ThinkProgress that the Trump Organization had not yet responded to the letter. The Trump Organization did not respond to ThinkProgress’ request for comment.

The lawmakers’ letter follows a pair of other letters sent by Torres and Engel about Trump, Panama, and money laundering. In February, the two wrote Garten requesting information on how the Trump Organization conducted due diligence to combat the massive money laundering that was already taking place at the hotel. As a 2017 report from Global Witness found, Trump was “one of the beneficiaries” of “proceeds from Colombian cartels’ narcotics trafficking,” proceeds that were parked in the building.

Torres’ office — which also requested information from the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) on the money laundering that took place at Trump’s former property — told ThinkProgress that they had not yet heard a response from the Trump Organization.