The Chinese woman accused of trespassing at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort told a bewildered federal judge in court Tuesday that she wishes to represent herself.
“I don’t need the attorneys, thank you,” Yujing Zhang said through an interpreter at the federal courthouse in Fort Lauderdale.
“Do you want to represent yourself or do you want a lawyer?” asked U.S. District Judge Roy Altman.
“Today, I don’t want the attorney,” Zhang replied, which the judge called a “very bad decision.”
The bizarre back-and-forth was not expected at an otherwise routine status hearing for a case with national-security implications. Although the judge urged Zhang to rely on legal counsel, she refused.
“I want to represent myself,” said Zhang, who has pleaded not guilty and remains in detention. She did not explain her reasoning.
After one of Zhang’s federal public defenders told Altman there were possible concerns about her mental health, the judge said he would not allow the defendant to waive her right to an attorney until she had been evaluated by a private psychologist recommended by the defense team. He said he would allow her to represent herself if she was deemed competent.
“I don’t want to see a doctor,” Zhang insisted.
Zhang, 33, is charged with lying to a federal agent and entering restricted property. She faces up to a year on the trespassing charge and up to five years for lying. A financial consultant from Shanghai, she was arrested in March after trying to enter the president’s club carrying several electronic devices. Her case has raised questions about lax security at Mar-a-Lago and the risks that may pose to the president’s safety and the security of classified information. In previous hearings, prosecutors have suggested that Zhang’s case could involve espionage, although she has not been charged with spying.
The lead federal prosecutor in the case, Rolando Garcia, has been joined by an additional prosecutor, Michael Sherwin, who works in the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office counterterrorism section. Sherwin has previously handled a South Florida case that bore some of the hallmarks of a Chinese spying operation.
In the moments before the status hearing, Zhang’s public defenders seemed to beseech their client to cooperate with their efforts to represent her.
“We would like to meet with you to talk to you more,” attorney Kristy Militello told Zhang. “What you tell us is private.”
The intense heart-to-heart was overhead by Miami Herald reporters.
Militello then told the judge that Zhang has been “refusing” to meet with her defense team.
Seemingly concerned by Zhang’s repeated refusal to speak with her attorneys, Altman asked if she had been threatened, coerced or bribed into her decision to represent herself. She said no, but when asked about her reasons said there were many and that she could not discuss them — not even if the court and docket were sealed.
A trial date for Zhang had been set for May 28 but the defense had asked for more time to prepare.
On March 30, Zhang entered Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. She carried with her an electronic invitation for a “Safari Night” charity gala promoted on Chinese-language social media by Cindy Yang, the South Florida Asian-spa entrepreneur who ran a business that sold Chinese business executives entry to events frequented by Trump, his family and his advisers. The event, hosted by the president’s sister Elizabeth Trump Grau, had been canceled after the Herald broke the story of Yang’s access peddling. Zhang told a U.S. Secret Service agent she was there to attend the gala, although federal prosecutors said she knew it was no longer taking place. That led to the lying charge.
While prosecutors have seemed to temper initial allegations from the Secret Service that Zhang sought to bring a thumb drive containing malware into Mar-a-Lago, she remains a person of interest in an FBI counterintelligence probe into possible Chinese spying in South Florida. That investigation began last year. In addition to the electronics found on Zhang at her arrest, federal agents discovered more devices, including one used to detect hidden cameras, in her Palm Beach hotel room, as well as more than $8,000 in U.S. and Chinese currency.
No help needed
In court Tuesday, Altman warned Zhang about the risks of representing herself, saying she could obtain a new public defender instead. He asked if she had any experience in U.S. law.
“I have read some books,” she said.
Zhang also claimed the indictment — handed down by a federal grand jury — was invalid based on her understanding of American law. The decision to represent herself means she will have to make complex legal decisions on her own.
At one point, Altman held up a weighty copy of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure.
“It has taken all of us many years to learn the rules of procedure and you’re going to have to study that and learn that yourself,” the judge said.
“If necessary, I might do some study in terms of this,” Zhang acknowledged.
“A trained lawyer would defend you much better than you could representing yourself,” Altman said. “I strongly urge you not to represent yourself. ... I’ve been a lawyer for a very long time and I think this is a very bad decision.”
An incident reminiscent of Zhang’s unfolded last year at the high-security Naval Air Station in Key West. In that case, a Chinese exchange student waded around a security fence and took pictures of the military installation. He claimed to be a bumbling tourist who inadvertently wandered onto the base.
That case was handled by Sherwin, who is now working on Zhang’s prosecution as well.
FBI agents found no pictures of Key West’s typical tourist hangouts on the student’s smartphone or digital camera.
“The primary pictures on that camera were of the military facility,” Sherwin said in court at the time. “It did not have the hallmark of a tourist who got lost.”
The man pleaded guilty and was sentenced to a year in prison, although his attorney denied he was a spy.
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver contributed to this report.