“Will you commit to President Varela . . . that there will be no repercussions from the U.S. government if he chooses to ignore your firm’s requests?” Menendez asked. The senator’s office provided a copy of the letter to The Washington Post, along with copies of other letters sent to the Commerce Department, the Trump Organization and the U.S. Embassy in Panama.
The Trump Organization’s lawyers wrote to Varela on March 22, in the middle of a sometimes-bizarre battle over the Trump International Hotel in Panama City.
The majority owner of that hotel blamed Trump’s company for mismanagement and Trump’s damaged brand for poor sales. After a days-long standoff at the hotel, he won a ruling from a local judge and quickly ejected the Trump Organization as the hotel’s manager. The owner also removed the Trump name from the building’s sign, renaming the hotel the Bahia Grand.
But even after the name came down, the Trump Organization fought to be reinstated, saying it had a valid contract. The company’s lawyers wrote to Varela, requesting his influence in the legal fight. They warned Varela, vaguely, that the case might have “repercussions” for Panama’s reputation as a place where American firms do business.
It was an extraordinary request: a company owned by the U.S. president asking directly for help from the government of an American ally.
When the letter to Varela was revealed, the Trump Organization said the lawyers had sent it on their own initiative, without consulting any Trump executives first.
Menendez, in his queries, asked the Trump Organization’s executive vice president, George Sorial, if that was true: “Did you approve of sending the letter?”
Menendez also asked Sorial if the Trump Organization knew of any similar letters sent on its behalf to other foreign governments.
Menendez asked the Commerce Department and the U.S. Embassy in Panama if either had communicated with the Panamanian government — or with Trump’s company — about the Trump lawyers’ letter.
Spokespeople for the Panamanian president have said he received the letter but took no action as a result.
“The case was handled by the judicial branch,” a spokeswoman for Varela wrote in a statement this week. “This is not a bilateral issue between governments, much less a political one.”
Joshua Partlow in Mexico City contributed to this report.