Anna Lenzer writes: It was a big moment for Donald Trump.
On July 6, 2011, the future president was beaming as he celebrated the opening of his first international real-estate deal, the Ocean Club in Panama City, Panama. The flashy hotel-condo complex featured a 72-story tower that transformed the skyline of the city with its sail-shaped design. After a ceremony featuring dancers in traditional Panamanian dress, Trump stood at a podium, flanked by his two oldest sons, Don Jr. and Eric, paused during his remarks, gently leaned over and offered a special thanks to Ricardo Martinelli, the president of Panama.“You’re my friend. Great honor.”
Standing next to Trump’s children, Martinelli smiled back. The white-haired, stocky president was flattered, proud of the fact that the complex had the potential to transform his small country into a destination for the rich and famous. As they both delivered their remarks that afternoon, the sky broke open and a torrential rain flooded the streets, turning the peninsula on which the complex stood into a “swamp island.” Trump and Martinelli had to ride out through the flooded streets in their separate chauffeured SUVs.
More than five years later, Trump has taken over the Oval Office and Martinelli is a fugitive from justice wanted on multiple corruption charges and investigations, ranging from allegedly helping to embezzle $45 million from a government school lunch program to insider trading to using public funds to spy on more than 150 political opponents, lawyers, doctors, and activists. But their paths could intertwine again very soon in what may be a thorny dilemma for the Trump administration. At the end of September, Panama’s Supreme Court asked the United States to extradite Martinelli, who left office in 2014 and now lives in exile in a luxury waterfront condo in Miami.
While the United States has codified policies to deny visas to foreign officials facing criminal charges in their home countries, and Trump’s recent executive order on immigration enforcement targets for removal individuals with even unresolved criminal charges, Martinelli entered the U.S. in 2015 on a visitor visa as the criminal investigations around him and his inner circle were tightening and has reportedly remained since.
Before fleeing Panama, Martinelli sat on the board of a bank that became the co-trustee for the Ocean Club, a role that left it in charge of managing funds coming in from rentals and sales, and of disbursing money to Trump, who gets millions in fees from the project. The Ocean Club has been Trump’s largest individual source of branding fees, reports the Economist, earning Trump “at least $50 million on the project on virtually zero investment,” reported the Washington Post in January.
Now, the extradition request highlights the potential conflicts of interest that have swirled around Trump: A decision that is usually made on the merits by career diplomats could be complicated by the president’s personal and business ties to Panama. Officials at the State Department could be inclined to approve the extradition, mindful of not antagonizing the current government of Panama, which exerts plenty of influence over the fate of a development that makes millions for the president’s family — or to decline the request out of their awareness of Martinelli’s support for the Ocean Club and his admiration and kind words for Trump. [Continue reading…]