People walk on rocks on the shore during low tide as the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower Panama (3rd L) is seen next to apartment buildings in...
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What happens when a foreign government investigates a Trump business?

Donald Trump’s domestic properties are at the center of some important controversies, but to fully appreciate the ethics messes surrounding this president, it’s also worth looking abroad.

11/18/17, 12:11 AM ET

Trump Panama building a magnet for dirty money laundering

Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, looks at how a Panama building project bearing the Trump name became a hot spot for illegal money world wide to be cleaned through real estate transactions.
Richard Engel, NBC News chief foreign correspondent, looks at how a Panama building project bearing the Trump name became a hot spot for illegal money world wide to be cleaned through real estate transactions.
Take Panama, for example. Whereas it used to be a hypothetical scenario – what would happen if Trump’s business were facing a foreign investigation? – the Washington Post  reports that it now appears to be quite real.

As the story goes, the majority owner of the Trump International Hotel in Panama entered the hotel last week with an entourage, intending to fire the Trump Organization, which managed the building. The trouble, as Post  explained, is that the Trump Organization “has refused to leave.”

Since that first confrontation, police have been called multiple times to referee disputes between owner Orestes Fintiklis – who blames the company’s poor management and damaged brand for the hotel’s declining revenue – and the Trump Organization, which says it still has a valid contract to manage the place.

Offices have been barricaded. Several yelling matches have broken out. The power was briefly turned off, in a dispute over the building’s electronic equipment.

All of this may seem a little comedic, but now that the Trump Organization is under investigation by Panamanian prosecutors, the situation is rather serious – and without precedent.

If this were simply a matter of an American business facing a foreign investigation, we’d expect the controversy to be resolved in the courts, possibly drawing the interest of the State Department, depending on the severity of the circumstances.

But while the sitting American president no longer controls the day-to-day operations of the Trump Organization, he does still own and profit from it. In practical terms, when prosecutors in Panama investigate the Trump Organization, they’re examining whether the American president’s business committed a crime.

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) told the Post, “The fear has always been that there would be an international incident involving the finances of the president, and the president would have his loyalties questioned…. What kind of pressure would he be willing to place on [foreign authorities]?”

We don’t know the answer to that question, but the fact that the question even exists is itself a problem. Trump had an opportunity to avoid this and related messes before he took office by divesting from his private-sector enterprise, just as previous presidents have done. He refused.

The consequences continue to be a problem.

For more on this story, NBC News first reported on the controversy in November, highlighting the project and its ties to suspected criminals. NBC News also reported last month on efforts of the hotel’s owners trying, in vain, to remove Trump’s name from the property.

Rachel also had a segment on this story in the fall, and the clip is included above.