There's a wild soap opera playing out at the Trump hotel in Panama

Trump's name pried from a hotel sign in Panama
Trump's name pried from a hotel sign in Panama


    Trump's name pried from a hotel sign in Panama


Trump's name pried from a hotel sign in Panama 00:50

Washington (CNN)On Monday, hotel workers pried the letters "T-R-U-M-P" off of the Panama City hotel known as the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel. It was the latest gambit in a high-profile squabble between the Trump organization and Orestes Fintiklis, a Miami-based investor who owns the majority of the units in the hotel. The fight has featured, among other things, Panamanian authorities storming the hotel and Fintiklis playing piano in the lobby as a way to declare victory. (Yes, it sounds like a soap opera.)

For more on the fight -- who and why -- as well as where this all might end, I reached out to CNN's Cristina Alesci. Our conversation, conducted via email and lightly edited for flow, is below.
Cillizza: Let's start simple. What's the dispute here? And do we have any sense who is in the wrong?
Alesci: Fintiklis owns a majority of the hotel -- 202 of the 369 units -- along with its amenities. He wants to ditch the Trump name and end a management contract with the President's company. He claims the Trump Organization isn't managing the property well and that the Trump brand is bad for business in Panama.
    The Trump Organization claims the matter should be settled in arbitration -- after all, it says, the agreement between Fintiklis and Trump Organization requires arbitration to resolve differences.
    Instead of waiting for an arbitrator's decision (or the end of a protracted legal fight), Fintiklis decided to take matters into his own hands. He tried to fire employees he thought were loyal to Trump.
    Meanwhile, the Trump Organization claimed it had sole authority to hire and fire employees.
    The standoff over who controlled employees set off a physical confrontation. The Panamanian government deployed armed officials to the property while Fintiklis and the Trump Organization engaged in schoolyard-like behavior.
    The President's company claimed Fintiklis was using "thug-like" tactics. And Fintiklis reportedly sent a letter to minority owners, calling the Trumps "leeches."
    I don't want to speculate on who's right or wrong here, because who knows! But Panamanian authorities seem to have sided with Fintiklis (at least for today) -- granting him control of the employees and the property. But CNN is still waiting a "full legal decision issued by the country's officials."
    Cillizza: The sort of name-usage/branding agreement that Trump's company has with this hotel. Is it unusual?
    Alesci: No -- it's not unusual. The Trump Organization is not a developer on most of its recent projects. The company usually licenses its name to developers and investors. In this case, however, Fintiklis wasn't even part of the original deal. The entire project -- a massive 70-story building in the shape of a sail that includes residential units, a casino, and residential and office space -- has been mired in controversy and has been struggling for years, according to media reports. In 2017, Fintiklis's investment company bought 202 of the 369 units along with the hotel's amenities from lenders and the original developer, according to court documents. Trump's management agreement, which was signed in 2008, remained in effect despite the change in ownership, according to a lawsuit.
    Cillizza: Over the weekend, the majority owner of the hotel suddenly appeared in the lobby. What gives?
    Alesci: Fintiklis is definitely a character. Turns out, he marks every "victory" by playing piano and singing, which he did again Monday. I'm told it began as a way to show the outside world that he's a real person -- an attempt to shake the picture of a mobster that the Trump Organization was trying to paint. I'm told he played a Greek song: "The Accordion" by Manos Loizos, which appears to be an anti-fascist resistance song.
    Cillizza: The goal is to remove the Trump brand from the hotel entirely? Or is there more that the majority owner wants?
    Alesci: Fintiklis wants to remove the brand. He also seems unwilling (at least publicly) to pay a break fee for ending the contract early, adding insult to injury from the Trump Organization's standpoint.
    Here's the deal: two other Trump partners who had licensed the Trump name to hotels (one in Toronto and the other in New York City) broke ties with the Trump Organization since the election.
    But the owners of those projects paid the President's company a break fee to end their agreements in what were billed as "buyouts."
    (Side note: See a pattern here? Partners are fleeing the Trump Organization in places where the President's policies are unpopular.)
    Cillizza: Finish this sentence: "The way this all ends is ___________." Now, explain.
    Alesci: "Embarrassment for the Trump Organization and possibly financial pain for Fintiklis."
    Although Fintiklis seems to have control of the property (at least for now), that's just part of the story. The Trump Organization, however, might want to make it hurt for Fintiklis -- after all, the President's company doesn't want to set a precedent that encourages partners to break contracts and walk away without paying them. The two sides will either hash out some sort of monetary settlement or the arbitrators will resolve the dispute for them.