If there is one paragraph to take away from the Associated Press’s report about the Trump Organization asking Panama’s president to intervene in its business dispute over an eviction, it’s this one:
The letter goes on to say that the eviction violates the Bilateral Investment Treaty. “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, suggesting that the government, not the new management team, could be blamed for wrongdoing.
That is a threat. And it is not even that veiled.
Plenty of questions are raised by the newly reported letter, in which the Trump Organization asks Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela to use his “influence” to help it resolve the situation. For those who need a refresher, a contentious legal battle has played out over the past couple of months after the majority owners of Trump’s only hotel in Latin America ordered Trump Organization employees to leave the property in a takeover bid. The Trump Organization has tried and failed to overturn the employees’ eviction from the newly renamed Bahia Grand Panama (formerly the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower).
Chief among those questions is whether it is okay for a U.S. president’s namesake business to be applying political pressure on other heads of state. Trump’s children are running the business now, though the arrangement comes up well shy of a blind trust, which ethics watchdogs had called for.
Another question is whether Trump himself knows about this or would approve. Given that he is not involved in the day-to-day operations of the business, the likely answer would seem to be that he is not involved. A Trump Organization attorney didn’t comment to the AP when asked about Trump’s role.
Paul Stephan, an expert on international business law at the University of Virginia, said that asking top political figures to intercede in international judicial proceedings is not unusual — especially in countries where the judicial process might leave something to be desired — and that international agreements such as the Bilateral Investment Treaty could apply in such cases.
“I would say that it is not unheard-of for a foreign investor to reach out to the political authorities to complain about their treatment, especially if the jurisdiction does not have a high level of judicial or bureaucratic independence,” Stephan said, while emphasizing that he hadn’t reviewed the Trump Organization’s case in Panama. So even if Trump weren’t president, it’s not unthinkable that the Trump Organization would have sent such a letter. Having well-heeled overseas investors in Panama, after all, is something that politicians there will want to promote, and having an international investor leave the country unhappy about his or her treatment in the courts could be bad for business.
But as with everything about Trump’s business, him being president makes things much more complicated — and probably worthy of increased caution on behalf of the Trump Organization. Whether the letter would have been sent even if Trump weren’t president doesn’t change the fact that it might be viewed in a certain way knowing that he is.
Which brings us back to the not-so-veiled threat. It clearly suggests that a lack of a positive resolution could be laid at the feet of the Panamanian government — rather than the “other party” in the dispute. The Trump Organization could certainly be the one to make good on that threat, by complaining about how unfriendly the business climate and judicial process in Panama are.
But if you are the Panamanian president, and you receive a letter from the business of the U.S. president threatening what can only be described as political retribution, it has to make you think twice, doesn’t it?