‘Up to something nefarious.’ Judge orders lockup of Chinese woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago

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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:

A federal judge Monday ordered the detention of Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman arrested trying to enter President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club.

“It does appear to the court that Ms. Zhang was up to something nefarious,” Magistrate Judge William Matthewman said at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, adding that he considered Zhang, 33, a flight risk and believed she would return to China if released before trial.

Matthewman said the weight of the evidence against Zhang — who pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of making false statements to federal officers and entering restricted property — is “quite strong.” Prosecutors had asked to keep her locked up.

Although no allegations of espionage have been made against Zhang, federal prosecutor Rolando Garcia said more charges are still possible. The FBI is treating her case as a national-security matter, sources have told the Miami Herald. Her arrest raised questions about security at Mar-a-Lago — and whether foreign adversaries could seek to penetrate the president’s Palm Beach club.

Zhang was stopped at Mar-a-Lago March 30. She said she was there to attend an event and was carrying what the U.S. Secret Service described as a thumb drive containing “malicious malware,” as well as several other electronic devices.

But during Monday’s hearing, prosecutors acknowledged the malware could have been a “false positive.” Garcia said the new findings were based on an FBI analysis of the thumb drive that did not produce the same results as an earlier Secret Service analysis.

During the earlier test, the thumb drive was inserted into a computer and automatically started downloading files, something a Secret Service agent described as unusual in court testimony last week. The thumb drive did not start downloading files during the subsequent FBI analysis, Garcia said. Tests are ongoing.

Matthewman asked Garcia Monday how close Zhang got to a Mar-a-Lago computer.

“Within arm’s length” of a computer in the club’s reception area, Garcia replied.

Garcia also disclosed that messages from Zhang’s iPhone showed she learned from an event promoter on March 26 that the Mar-a-Lago gala had been canceled, two days before she flew from China to the United States, something first reported by the Herald.

Matthewman said his order to detain Zhang was based on the fact that she showed up for the event knowing that it was canceled, as well as the number of electronic devices in her possession. He also pointed out the defendant had the financial resources to flee “if she chooses to do so” and that she had no family ties to the United States, which has no extradition treaty with China.

Zhang’s federal public defenders argued during the hearing that her arrest was a misunderstanding based on language.

If an interpreter had been present at Mar-a-Lago, “we would not be here today,” said attorney Kristy Militello.

Militello and co-counsel Robert Adler said the evidence was not overwhelming and that there was no recording of her responses to initial questioning after her arrest. They proposed a bond of $250,000 to be co-signed by Zhang’s father.

A federal grand jury found probable cause Friday that she lied to the Secret Service about why she came to Mar-a-Lago. She is being held at the Palm Beach County jail.

On Monday, Zhang wore an inmate’s blue uniform with her handcuffs connected to a waist chain and her ankles shackled, too. She appeared to speak to her attorneys in English, although they occasionally consulted a court-appointed Mandarin translator. If convicted on both counts, she could face up to six years in prison and as much as $350,000 in fines.

Court rendering of Yujing Zhang at her pretrial detention hearing Monday, April 8.

Shortly after noon on March 30, Zhang was waved through a U.S. Secret Service checkpoint outside Mar-a-Lago after saying she wished to visit the swimming pool, according to a criminal complaint. Mar-a-Lago staff granted her access because her last name — one of the most common in China — was the same as a club member’s, the complaint stated. She was stopped only after telling a receptionist and then a Secret Service agent that she was there to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event,” which was not on Mar-a-Lago’s calendar.

Secret Service agents found she was carrying a wide variety of electronics: four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and the thumb drive. A search of her hotel room at the Colony in Palm Beach uncovered more electronics, including a device used to detect hidden cameras, and more than $8,000 in American and Chinese currency. She told the court in an earlier hearing that she was a financial investor and consultant from Shanghai, and said she owned a $1.3 million home and a BMW.

Zhang was indicted Friday on charges of making a false statement to a federal officer and entering restricted property.

Since late last year, an FBI counterintelligence squad has been investigating possible Chinese espionage operations in South Florida targeting President Trump, sources told the Herald. Zhang’s arrest sent that investigation into overdrive. Authorities have recently focused on Li “Cindy” Yang, a former South Florida massage parlor operator, and her business selling access to the president. Yang had used Chinese social media to promote the Mar-a-Lago event that Zhang wished to attend. The event was a “Safari Night” benefit for a local youth charity co-hosted by Elizabeth Trump Grau, Trump’s sister.

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Who has gained access to President Trump and Mar-a-Lago through Cindy Yang?

On Monday, Garcia the prosecutor revealed that Zhang had learned about the event’s cancellation from Charles Lee, a Chinese businessman who promoted events at Mar-a-Lago to Chinese clients along with Yang. Lee runs a company called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association. Lee was saved on Zhang’s phone as “United Nations Charles.” She paid his company $20,000 for a travel package that included going to the Mar-a-Lago event, according to a receipt entered into evidence by the defense.

Through a spokeswoman, Yang has said she did nothing wrong and doesn’t know Zhang.

Yang had planned to attend a March 10 fundraiser for Trump at Mar-a-Lago hosted by the Republican National Committee. But she decided not to go after the Herald published a story about her political activities and consulting business, including a selfie she had taken with the president. An RNC official said Yang asked for a refund on March 8, the day the Herald story published, and was refunded $5,600.

Li ‘Cindy’ Yang poses with President Donald Trump at a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago on March 3, 2018. She received a signed photograph. A flier for the event advertised a ‘reception, photo and two seats for dinner with President Trump’ for a donation of $50,000.

National-security experts have raised questions about vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago since President Trump’s election. But Zhang’s arrest was the first reported major breach. Last week, the White House said Secret Service Director Randolph “Tex” Alles would be leaving his post, although a Trump administration source said Alles’ departure was not related to Zhang’s arrest.

Still, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., has said Alles should testify before Congress about the incident and broader security concerns.

“The public and Congress need to know the extent to which adversarial governments — like China — and their agents are attempting to gain access to, or conduct electronic surveillance on, conversations or other information regarding national security at President Trump’s properties,” Schumer said in a statement.

In February, a federal judge in Miami imposed a maximum one-year sentence on a Chinese student who was caught by Key West police trespassing onto the high-security Naval Air Station. Investigators soon learned he was taking photos and videos of the military base on his smartphone and digital camera.

Zhao Qianli, 20, told FBI agents that he was a musicology student from China who traveled to the United States for a summer exchange program. He said that during his late September visit to Key West he lost his way on the tourist trail and did not realize he had wandered onto the military base. He later pleaded guilty to taking the photos of defense installations at the military base.

Qianli’s conviction and sentencing followed a recent CNN report that said U.S. intelligence officials have warned that China is enlisting some of its students studying in the United States to act as spies in gathering information on business, technology and science for the Beijing government.

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Sarah Blaskey is an investigative and data reporter at the Miami Herald. She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.
Caitlin Ostroff is a data reporter for McClatchy’s DC Bureau, based at the Miami Herald. She uses data analysis and coding to present and report information as part of the investigative team.