Nation & World

Chinese woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago accused of lying, not spying. Did she really lie?

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

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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:

It was the prosecutor’s most quotable statement at a federal court hearing Monday for the Chinese intruder detained after showing up unannounced at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club: “She lies to everyone she encounters.”

But on a crucial matter — the reason for her presence, as told to the Secret Service — Yujing Zhang appears to have compelling evidence supporting her story. Zhang, the 33-year-old Chinese woman arrested March 30, actually paid to attend an event at the club that day — something she immediately disclosed to a Secret Service agent, said Zhang’s federal public defender, Robert Adler. The lawyer presented evidence to the court: a receipt for a $20,000 wire transfer to a Chinese company that processes payments for promoters who sell tickets to Mar-a-Lago charity events.

The receipt — written in Chinese — could weaken the government’s main allegation in a criminal complaint against Zhang, namely that she lied to federal agents about why she was trying to enter the president’s club, because it shows she may have had a legitimate reason to be there.

But Monday’s hearing seemed to be about more than allegations of lying: The prosecution and defense also parried over the hints of espionage permeating the fledgling investigation into Zhang. When she was arrested, the Chinese national was carrying various electronics, including a malware infected thumb drive.

Zhang has not been charged with espionage, though prosecutors with the U.S. Attorney’s Office left open the possibility that more charges could come after a thorough analysis of Zhang’s trove of electronics found either on her person or in her hotel room — including several cellphones, an external hard drive and a “signal-detector” device that is used to detect hidden cameras.

Screen Shot Yujing Zhan_fitted.jpeg
Yujing Zhang Yujing Zhang's passport photo.

National security experts said Zhang’s effort to attend an event at Mar-a-Lago could also be part of a cover story planned in advance by a foreign intelligence agency. At the very least, Zhang’s arrest has reinvigorated a broader federal investigation into possible Chinese espionage operations in South Florida, which was initiated late last year.

The wire-transfer receipt submitted by the defense as evidence, dated Feb. 19, 2019, showed that Zhang had paid 135,000 yuan, approximately $20,000, to a Beijing-based company used to collect payments from Chinese guests planning to attend events at Mar-a-Lago at the invitation of Li “Cindy” Yang, the former Asian day-spa owner who had launched a consulting company advertising access to Donald Trump and his family.

Yang had an associate, Weitan Li, a Chinese national who goes by Dr. Charles Lee and runs a group called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association to bring overseas clients to Mar-a-Lago. The group has no apparent connection to the United Nations.

At Mar-a-Lago in January 2018, Cindy Yang poses with Dr. Charles Lee, who promotes her events to his clients in China. WeChat

Zhang told authorities she had been invited to Mar-a-Lago by “Charles,” who Adler said was Charles Lee. Lee has used the company that received Zhang’s wire transfer, Beijing Peace and Friendship Management Consulting Co., Ltd., to process payments from Chinese clients who purchase his business diplomacy travel packages, according to Lee’s website which has since been taken down.

On the site, Lee advertised a travel package that included a 2018 Mar-a-Lago “Safari Night” charity gala. In order to attend the event, Lee’s clients were directed to make $13,000 payments to Beijing Peace and Friendship Management Consulting Co., Ltd. — the same company Zhang paid $20,000 in 2019.

Mar-a-Lago has become a top destination for Trump tourism. Experts say Mar-a-Lago in particular provides unprecedented levels of access by people to the president.

Although Lee is not listed on the corporate records for Beijing Peace and Friendship Management Consulting Co., Ltd, the executive director, Xinyuan Wang, was listed as “secretary of international liaison” and “executive director” of Lee’s United Nations Chinese Friendship Association. Beijing Peace and Friendship Management Consulting Co., Ltd. also posted ads on Lee’s site.

Wang could not immediately be reached for comment. Lee’s website was taken down after a brief phone call with a Herald reporter that concluded with Lee saying he was in Europe and hanging up.

Even if Zhang told the truth to federal agents about the event, and cooperated with officers when she gave them permission to look at her phones, that wouldn’t prove she is not a foreign intelligence officer or asset, said David Kris, an assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration and founder of the consulting firm Culper Partners.

“It’s plausible for an intelligence officer to pretend to cooperate and try ... giving a credible cover story that would have been planned in advance,” said Kris, who added that the charges of lying may be an attempt to keep Zhang in custody while the government tries to get more information.

The semi-public nature of Mar-a-Lago has been a source of concern in the security community. For a fee of $200,000 anyone can become a member — something experts say foreign intelligence agencies are sure to attempt to exploit. Lee and Yang have brought dozens of guests to events at Mar-a-Lago over the past 18 months.

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

Zhang initially told federal agents she had come to Mar-a-Lago to use the pool, according to an affidavit filed by a U.S. Secret Service agent. She then stated she had been invited to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” between China and the United States, the affidavit states.

In court on Monday, a federal prosecutor marked that as two lies: one because Zhang had no swimming suit in her bag (she was wearing a gray dress), and another because there was no event scheduled at Mar-a-Lago called “United Nations” anything.

There was, however, an event previously scheduled for that day, one heavily promoted online by Yang. Before its last-minute cancellation, Safari Night 2019 was to be held on March 30. The charity gala was canceled after the Miami Herald revealed that Yang had taken photographs with Trump and other Republican leaders and used them to advertise her ability to get Chinese clients into events with the president at Mar-a-Lago.

Zhang told agents she had been invited to show up early for an event to be held later that evening, Adler said. She said she had wanted to use the opportunity to talk with members of the Trump family. According to a source familiar with the case, on Zhang’s previous two trips to the United States in July 2016 and January 2017, she had stayed at a Trump hotel in New York City.

Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich, who interviewed Zhang on the day of her arrest, testified Monday that despite flashing an event invitation in Chinese on her phone, Zhang offered no indication that she actually planned to attend the canceled Safari Night. However, it’s possible Zhang had not known the event’s name, and had made reference to Lee’s United Nation’s group as the organizer instead. It’s also possible Zhang was never informed of the cancellation.

Both Lee and Yang had been promoting Safari Night 2019 with a flier in Chinese promoting the event as an “International Elite Forum” and a chance for Chinese businessmen to meet Elizabeth Trump Grau and other U.S. “elites” at the first-ever Chinese-led dinner at Mar-a-Lago. It was the perfect opportunity to “do propaganda” in the home of the U.S. president, Yang’s ad announced. The president’s sister’s face was printed on the flier promoted by Yang.

Nowhere did the flier mention “Safari Night,” though it was clearly advertising the same event, given the listed date and guest of honor.

GYUS Invest Ad Safari Night 2019
A translation of an event promoted on Yang’s GY US Investments website advertised a forum for international Chinese elites to take place at Mar-a-Lago on the same date as the previously scheduled Safari Night 2019. That 2019 event was canceled.

Ivanovich acknowledged on the witness stand that the Secret Service had conducted no searches to determine whether Safari Night had been advertised on Chinese social media under a different name and description.

Federal prosecutors and investigators have discounted the possible confusion regarding names and believe Zhang had made up the event as a pretext to enter Mar-a-Lago, according to a source familiar with the case. The information about the U.N. event that Zhang showed agents was just text, and appeared to be written by Zhang herself, the source said. It was not the same flier that Yang had been using to promote the Safari Night event.

Ivanovich also testified that a preliminary analysis of Zhang’s phone showed no evidence that she had been in contact with Lee or Yang. He did not specify which of the phones.

The defense provided the receipt as evidence that Zhang used channels previously established by Yang and Lee to bring guests to Mar-a-Lago events.

Adler said Monday the defense will consider a subpoena to have Lee testify. However he acknowledged that his team has been unsuccessful in attempts to contact Lee and has no idea where he is.

Yang had been on the list of Safari Night 2019 attendees, according to event organizer Terry Bomar. Zhang was not on the list, Bomar told the Herald last week.

Yang has not made a public appearance since she went on TV two weeks ago to declare she has done nothing wrong. Her spokesperson says she is taking a vacation and remains in the United States. Yang sold her Wellington home last month, according to property records.


Building an espionage case

While she has been charged only with lying and unlawful entry, Adler said that the criminal complaint filed by the U.S. Attorney’s Office hinted strongly that his client was actually suspected of espionage. Federal prosecutor Rolando Garcia replied that “there is no allegation [in the criminal complaint] she was involved in espionage,” but later clarified to say there is still a chance that more charges could come after they finish their investigation.

Federal investigators are continuing to analyze malware found on a thumb drive Zhang carried with her the day she was arrested at Mar-a-Lago. During the initial examination, the malware began immediately downloading files to the analyst’s computer — something Ivanovich said the forensic analysis called “very unusual” — forcing them to halt the examination temporarily.

Authorities also searched Zhang’s Palm Beach hotel room after her arrest and found nine USB drives, five SIM cards, another cellphone, the device to detect hidden cameras, and over $8,000 cash.

“In my experience, normal people do not carry special camera detectors and multiple USB drives. By normal person we mean a person not trying to do anything nefarious or wrong,” Kris said. “It’s conceivable that a high-end criminal would have it but it seems more likely that it’s somebody who is bent on trying to extract information.”

Zhang had originally told a judge that she had less than $5,000 in her Wells Fargo account, and did not disclose how much cash she had, something prosecutors consider another potential lie, according to a source familiar with the case.

She told the judge that she maintains a U.S. bank account with “not much money” in it and also carries cash when she travels to the United States. Asked by the judge whether the bank account held more than $5,000, Zhang replied: “If I add the cash to it, maybe it would be over $5,000. I’m not sure.”

Her detention hearing will resume next Monday, April 15, at the same time as Zhang’s arraignment. Prosecutors are preparing an indictment, likely to charge her with making a false statement to a federal officer and trespassing on private property.

The State Department has revoked Zhang’s B1 tourist visa, and immigration authorities have placed a detainer on her. That means that even if she’s granted a bond, she won’t be released because she will immediately be placed in immigration custody.

Miami Herald writer Selina Cheng contributed to this report.
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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.
Sarah Blaskey covers local governments across Miami-Dade County. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s school of journalism and is the recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.