PANAMA CITY — Panamanian police on Tuesday handcuffed a security guard working for President Trump’s hotel here, in the midst of a dispute in which the hotel’s majority owner has tried to fire the Trump Organization — and Trump employees have refused to leave.
The guard was detained for denying officers access to hotel offices, according to two witnesses who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the ongoing legal dispute. It was unclear whether he had been formally arrested.
That detention came on a day when a long-running standoff over the fate of the Trump hotel — pitting the majority owner against the Trump Organization, which manages the property — escalated sharply.
There were physical altercations between rival groups of security guards, the visit by the police officers, and a triumphant piano performance by the majority owner, Orestes Fintiklis.
As the day went on, it appeared that Fintiklis’s strategy — to short-circuit a drawn-out legal battle over the hotel by showing up and asserting his power as owner — might be working.
The Panamanian Labor Ministry is investigating whether there were violations of the national labor code. The public prosecutor is examining whether Trump employees have disregarded lawful orders from their employer.
One of Fintiklis’s lawyers, Aníbal Herrera Zurita, told The Washington Post that at least 11 Trump hotel employees have been asked to attend a hearing Wednesday before a justice of the peace, a civilian municipal authority, over allegations that they blocked access to Fintiklis’s property and refused his orders. A justice of the peace has the authority to order jail time or fines.
The Trump Organization has said that it has a contract to manage the hotel through 2031, and that Fintiklis has no legal cause to break it now. The two sides are involved in both a federal-court case in the United States and international arbitration.
“All we ask is that we be able to manage the hotel in accordance with our management agreement without interference,” Trump Organization attorney Alan Garten said, “while the underlying dispute is being litigated in arbitration.”
The White House did not respond when asked whether Trump had been briefed on the fight at one of his company’s 12 luxury hotels.
Trump says he has handed day-to-day control over his businesses to his adult sons. But Trump still owns his businesses — including the one that manages the Trump hotel in Panama — and can withdraw money from them at any time. Trump’s most recent financial disclosure listed $810,000 in revenue from the Panama hotel over a period of 15½ months.
Some of the events at Trump International Hotel in Panama on Tuesday were witnessed by a Washington Post reporter, and others were outlined by witnesses and lawyers for Fintiklis.
Witnesses said the conflict on Tuesday began about 9:40 a.m. on the “T1” floor, one story above the hotel’s 15th-floor Sky Lobby, with views of the Pacific Ocean. The 70-story tower, designed to look like a billowing sail, includes both the hotel — managed by Trump — and a section of residential condominiums managed by others.
On that floor is a room that is effectively the building’s brain. It contains surveillance monitors and servers that control the building’s fire alarms, fiber-optic communications and water pumps.
In the past, it had been shared by Trump staff and staff of the residential section.
But on Friday, witnesses said the Trump Organization had posted guards at the room and barred everyone from entering.
Since then, the room had been the scene of several confrontations.
On Tuesday, the conflict turned from yelling to physical altercations, according to a video seen by The Washington Post. At least three staffers from the residential building — including security guards — managed to enter the room at 9:40 a.m.
A chaotic scene of shoving and shouting ensued as Trump guards tried to evict them.
“Someone grabbed me by the neck and wrestled me down. Then he continued attacking everyone,” said a building staff member, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly. He estimated the argument lasted nine minutes.
At least five Panamanian police officers arrived at the hotel and broke up the rival groups.
Herrera Zurita, the lawyer for Fintiklis, said that the Trump Organization had brought in an additional 20 private guards who were staying at the hotel.
At one point, the police commander on the scene sought to enter the administrative offices on another floor, but he was blocked by one of Trump’s guards, according to two people present. This was the guard who was handcuffed.
Also on Tuesday morning, Fintiklis himself entered the hotel, intent on firing nine employees from the Trump Organization. He could not find them, Fintiklis’s attorney said.
The Trump Organization still hadn’t been removed from the hotel management. But now, Fintiklis was at least inside. After the guard’s detention, he went to the lobby piano and played Beethoven’s “Für Elise.”
When he finished, those in the lobby — guards, staff and lawyers largely aligned with Fintiklis — broke into applause.
“I’m a multitalented mobster,” Fintiklis said, a joking reference to the Trump Organization’s allegation that he had used “mob style” tactics.
Beyond that, Fintiklis declined to comment.
Fahrenthold reported from Washington. Ana Cerrud in Panama City contributed to this report.