Who is Li Yang, the Asian spa founder who joined Trump’s MAGA movement?
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A Chinese-American massage-parlor entrepreneur arranged for a group of Chinese business executives to attend a paid fundraiser for President Donald Trump in New York City at the end of 2017, according to a source who was present at the event.
Cindy Yang, whose family owns a chain of South Florida day spas where prostitution is said to have taken place, also runs a Florida-based consulting business called GY US Investments that promises to introduce Chinese investors into the president’s orbit.
Yang was present at the Dec. 2, 2017, fundraiser, held at Cipriani restaurant in Manhattan, according to a photograph that circulated in Chinese-language media at the time. The source, who asked for anonymity to discuss the private fundraiser, said Yang identified herself as an official at the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, a Washington, D.C.-based political action committee founded in the summer of 2016.
In the 11 days before the event, Yang gave $5,400 to Trump’s campaign and $23,500 to the Trump Victory political action committee, according to a Miami Herald analysis of federal political contributions. The 45-year-old, a naturalized American citizen, also claimed to have arranged the presence of a large group of business people from mainland China.
“They’re all my guests,” she told the source.
Foreign visitors may attend fundraisers as long as they don’t pay their own entry. But only citizens and permanent residents are allowed to donate to U.S. political campaigns. It would be illegal for foreign nationals to reimburse a U.S. citizen for paying their way into a fundraiser. Special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has been examining whether money from abroad influenced the 2016 election. There is no evidence that Yang or her businesses are part of that investigation.
Yang is also noteworthy because she once owned what is now Orchids of Asia, the day spa in Jupiter where New England Patriots owner and billionaire Robert Kraft was charged with soliciting prostitution last month. Kraft’s bust is part of a wider law enforcement investigation into human trafficking at Asian-themed massage parlors in Florida. Yang says she sold that spa, which then operated under a different name, several years ago. She and the spas that remain registered to her family members have not been charged in that investigation.
She dominated the news Friday after the Herald published photos of her with Trump, as well as top Florida Republican politicians including Gov. Ron DeSantis and Sen. Rick Scott and conservative celebrities. She even snapped a selfie with Trump during a Super Bowl party at the president’s West Palm Beach golf club. Kraft’s Patriots won the game. (Shortly after the story was published, Yang took down the Facebook page where she had posted many of the photos and also the GY US Investments website.)
The photos raised questions about who can gain access to the president at his resorts and other private businesses, as well as at official venues like fundraisers. A report by Mother Jones Saturday laid out in detail how Yang promised Chinese business people access to Trump.
In a brief interview with the Herald earlier in the week, Yang denied wrongdoing related to her spas. She did not return a call requesting comment Saturday. Neither did Cliff Zhonggang Li, who is listed as the executive director of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans, the political action committee where Yang said she works. Though the political action committee itself is small, Yang has contributed about 14 percent of its total funds in the 2016 and 2018 election cycles, donating about $1,150 and $4,400 respectively, according to nonprofit research group OpenSecrets. Most of the committee’s expenses are administrative, and the PAC has never given to a candidate or another committee, records show.
Reports in Chinese-language media said nearly 100 Chinese people attended the New York fundraiser in December 2017, out of roughly 400 total guests. The event was hosted by the Republican National Committee. Officials at Trump Victory and the RNC did not immediately respond to requests for comment Saturday, although on Monday the RNC released the following statement:
“In order for anyone to attend an event where they will be in arm’s length of the president, they must pass the Secret Service vetting process. Additionally Trump Victory only accepts contributions from American citizens in accordance with the law. We vehemently deny any wrongdoing on the part of the RNC or the Trump Campaign.”
The unusually heavy presence of foreign citizens at the New York event had been noted previously.
The Washington Post reported last year that members of the Chinese contingent were “guests” of an unnamed U.S. citizen donor. Yang and her family members have contributed tens of thousands of dollars to the president’s campaign and a Trump political action committee, with the donations starting in November 2017. Her husband, Zubin Gong, was also present at the New York fundraiser, according to the photograph.
The Chinese guests had “minimal exposure to President Trump,” a Republican Party official told the Post at the time.
“They attended an event with hundreds of individuals and took a photo from a photo line,” said the official, adding that all guests must be vetted at RNC events where the president is present.
The source who attended the party said the president joked that the Chinese guests got all the good seats and would be omnipresent at future events if his American friends in real estate didn’t start donating more. The source said admission started at $2,700, and photos with the president were offered for $10,000.
Since the New York event, Yang has advertised her ability to introduce Chinese investors to the president, his family and his advisers.
On the Chinese-language website for GY US Investments, Yang claimed to be hosting a “conference for international leadership” at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private resort in Palm Beach, on March 30. The guest speaker is advertised as Elizabeth Trump Grau, the president’s sister. Trump Grau could not be reached.
“It is the first time for Chinese to play the leading role [at] Mar-a-Lago,” the website claimed.
The company was formally registered in Florida on Dec. 12, 2017, 10 days after the Trump fundraiser in New York. It describes its services as helping Chinese investors acquire businesses in the United States, file for patents and securing “Nobel Prize winners” to participate in their projects. It also says clients can take photos with President Trump, take part in “VIP activities” at Mar-a-Lago and have dinner at the White House. Yang has attended several events held by the White House’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative in Washington, D.C.
Yang’s consulting business and newfound political relevance were a far cry from her previous main line of work: Running a chain of Asian day spas in Palm Beach and Broward counties.
Online commenters on adult-themed and other websites have stated that spas owned by Yang and her family — which operate under the brand name Tokyo Day Spas — have offered sex. Allegations of prostitution at the spas have been reported to at least two local police agencies in South Florida, according to law enforcement records obtained by the Herald, although no charges appear to have been brought against Yang or the spas as a result of those tips.