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Trump Tourism: Access for Sale
The Miami Herald is investigating how U.S. President Donald J. Trump has become a favorite target of a little-known Chinese industry peddling access to the rich and powerful. At the center of this “Trump Tourism” is Cindy Yang, a former Asian day spa owner, who sold access to Mar-a-Lago and the White House, raising concerns about national security. Read more:
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Feds are investigating possible Chinese spying at Mar-a-Lago and Cindy Yang, sources say
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A nonpartisan campaign finance watchdog group is asking the Federal Elections Commission to investigate whether President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign has taken donations from foreign nationals, which would violate federal law.
The complaint, filed Wednesday by the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center, cites concerns that the foreign money is coming into the campaign through a burgeoning online industry selling campaign fundraising event tickets to wealthy Chinese individuals hoping to gain access to the president.
The little-known industry of access peddling gained a national spotlight after the Miami Herald exposed one such operation, operated by Li “Cindy” Yang, an Asian day spa entrepreneur who sold access to the president’s private club at his home in Palm Beach. Yang, a naturalized American citizen, ran a business that promised Chinese executives face time with Trump and his family, particularly at Mar-a-Lago. Some of the events promoted by Yang on Chinese social media were then bundled by a Chinese man, Charles Lee, who marketed them as part of U.S. tourism packages.
The complaint draws on Herald reporting about how two of Yang’s guests, Chinese-born Ryan Xu and Lucas Lu, both got their pictures taken with the president at a December 2017 event, a privilege that required that someone pay $50,000 per picture. Neither appears to have paid in their own names for the photos, though Lu has a green card and would therefore have been able to donate legally.
Under U.S. law, foreign nationals are barred from making contributions to a political campaign. Foreign nationals can be brought to political events as guests, provided they do not reimburse the person who brought them. Repaying someone for a political contribution without disclosing the source is illegal, as is making a contribution in someone else’s name.
The Republican National Committee, which hosted the Trump campaign events mentioned in the complaint, said it only accepts donations made legally and reports contributions it believes to be illegal, returning the money in such cases. Campaign finance experts have said that identifying donations made in the name of another person, called a straw donor, is difficult.
An RNC spokeswoman has previously said both Xu and Lu were guests of a U.S. citizen — and had been vetted by the Secret Service — but declined to name the donor or donors who brought them.
The Herald and other news media have documented how Yang and others brought dozens of guests to Trump fundraisers. At least one of those guests had to have reimbursed someone for the cost of the ticket, which can be as much as $50,000, the CLC said in the complaint.
The FBI has already opened a public corruption investigation into Yang, focusing on whether she illegally funneled money from China into the president’s re-election effort or committed other potential campaign-finance violations.
The complaint goes beyond the scope of the FBI’s investigation and beyond Yang’s business, outlining other similar ventures that were selling tickets to Trump campaign events.
- Beijing-based Sun Changchun, the “head of a Chinese cultural exchange company,” claims to have also arranged for Chinese nationals to attend a December 2017 RNC fundraiser and circulated an invitation to a May 2018 fundraiser by Trump Victory, the president’s reelection committee, “to dozens of wealthy entrepreneurs in China” promising a $100,000 photo with the president, the Washington Post reported.
- Another company AmeriChina, based in New York and Bejing, offering high-end U.S. tours to Chinese clients, invited “Chinese entrepreneur leaders” to attend the March 2018 Trump Victory fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago and to get their photos taken with Trump — an opportunity requiring that a person raise $50,000 in $5,400 increments, according to the complaint. The company’s founder, Jingzhu “Margaret” Yang, told the Post her company did not promote that event.
- HGGT Limited, “a financial services company registered in Hong Kong that operates in mainland China,” circulated an invitation to a June 2019 “President Trump Breakfast” at Mar-a-Lago. Although the RNC told the Washington Post that the event is not scheduled, according to an HGGT Limited employee, owner Ma Jin “routinely receives what [the employee] described as authentic invitations to exclusive Trump events in the United States and sells some or all of his allotted seats to Chinese nationals.”
- Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at CLC, said there is “clearly a pattern” of access-brokers selling foreigners a way into U.S. political fundraisers, making it likely that they were being reimbursed directly or indirectly for political contributions, which would be illegal.
- “This is not limited to Cindy Yang. It’s not limited to one or two fundraising events,” Fischer said. “There’s a cottage industry of political tourism operators.”
In addition to the possibility of foreign donations, the access of foreign nationals to events with the president and other prominent Republicans has raised concerns about national security. In late March, the U.S. Secret Service arrested a Chinese woman, Yujing Zhang, after they said she tried to enter Mar-a-Lago with a bevy of electronic devices. She was carrying a ticket to one of Yang’s events, sold by one of her business associates, according to Zhang’s defense attorneys.
Prosecutors have suggested Zhang’s case, based on charges of entering restricted property and lying to a federal agent, could involve espionage, although she has not been charged with spying.