Who is Li Yang, the Asian spa founder who joined Trump’s MAGA movement?
When South Florida day-spa entrepreneur Li “Cindy” Yang started volunteering as a fundraiser for an Asian-American GOP political group, she was a whiz-bang event organizer with a gift for making connections.
But Yang, a political novice, seemed to have a tenuous grasp of laws that prevent foreign money from entering U.S. elections, according to Cliff Li, executive director of the National Committee of Asian American Republicans. Li said a “messy” New York fundraiser for President Donald Trump in late 2017 led him to worry that his group could be used to worm foreign money into the president’s reelection campaign.
Shortly after that, he imposed a new rule to bar anyone with the committee, also called the Asian GOP, from bringing foreign nationals as guests to political fundraisers. He believed the group should focus more on policy than events.
Yang quit her fundraising position in response, Li said.
The Asian GOP’s measure went further than U.S. law, which allows foreign nationals to attend political fundraisers so long as they do not pay for their entry or reimburse others for doing so. Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents can contribute to American political campaigns.
“I wanted to make sure we distanced ourselves from possible bad actors,” Li told the Miami Herald.
Yang — a Trump donor — didn’t think the change was necessary, and believed it would create red tape limiting her ability to organize successful events, Li said.
“We split after the change in policy” in February 2018, Li said, although Yang remained the group’s director of community outreach in Florida. He said he had no evidence that Yang did anything to violate election law, but was generally concerned about any appearance of impropriety.
After the breakup, Yang seems to have turned her attention to a private consulting business catering to Chinese executives that promised them photos with President Trump and White House dinners, among other perks.
The Republican National Committee said Trump Victory, the president’s reelection PAC, only accepts donations “from American citizens in accordance with the law.” The White House said Trump doesn’t know Yang.
Last week, the Herald published photos of Yang with Trump, his family and top Florida Republicans at private events inside the president’s resorts and other venues. The photos and story gained widespread attention, in particular because Yang’s family founded a chain of Asian-themed day spas that offered sexual services, according to online reviews and tips to police. She also once owned the spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others have been accused of soliciting prostitution.
House Democrats in Washington, including Florida Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, have called for an investigation.
In a statement, Yang’s attorney, Evan Turk, said his client had been “falsely accused” in widespread media coverage.
“Her name, her reputation and her honor have been destroyed,” he said. “Cindy Yang seems to be another casualty, as a supporter of our president.”
A spokeswoman for the law firm did not immediately respond when asked Thursday about Yang’s fundraising.
Li said the Asian GOP has no “specific” affiliation with the RNC.
“We have been working [side-by-side] with the RNC from the top leadership to field level promoting Republican values in Asian communities,” Li said. “We appreciate the support and encouragement they have been providing to us for sharing conservative causes.”
Access for sale
Li said he met Yang at a Chinese-American cultural event in South Florida in early 2015, and soon after she joined his political group as a volunteer fundraiser. She was enthusiastic, but green, Li said. He helped her bone up on a crucial aspect of campaign-finance law: Only American citizens and permanent residents are allowed to donate to U.S. political campaigns.
“In the beginning, she wasn’t aware at all,” Li said. But she got better, he said. Still, he worried about the lack of transparency in her big-ticket fundraising efforts.
The event that precipitated Li’s concerns was a Dec. 2, 2017, fundraiser held for Trump at Cipriani restaurant in New York City.
Yang had arranged for more than a dozen people to attend as part of an Asian GOP contingent, according to Li. Among the group were three Chinese e-commerce executives, according to Asian GOP social media posts and other Chinese-language reports on the event. (He said there was also a large contingent of non-English-speaking Chinese business people at the event who he did not believe were associated with Yang.)
Tickets to the glossy event started at $1,000 with VIP access going for $2,700, according to an invitation. Pictures with the president were said to be more expensive. Legally, foreign executives could not have been there on their own dime. Li said he didn’t know who paid for each individual brought by Yang on behalf of the Asian GOP.
Shortly before the event, Yang gave $23,500 to Trump Victory, the recipient of all proceeds generated by the event. Li said it was possible that Yang could have bundled together the entry payments, although that wasn’t how the Asian GOP normally arranged donations.
“That specific New York event was sort of messy,” Li said. So he changed the Asian GOP’s policy. From then on, only U.S. citizens and permanent residents would be allowed to attend political fundraisers as guests of the Asian GOP — the move that would prompt Yang to quit her fundraising position.
Li said he and Yang weren’t as close after that.
Ten days after the Trump event, Yang registered GY US Investments, a Florida consulting business that offered clients the chance to “interact with the president, the Minister of Commerce and other political figures” in the United States and have “dinner at the White House and Capitol Hill,” according to her company’s website, which was taken down after the Herald’s initial reporting. The website used photographs of her with Trump and those in his circle to advertise its services.
Li said he didn’t know about the consulting business, but had he been aware, he would have told Yang it was a bad idea.
A scandal during the 1996 presidential election saw Chinese Americans convicted for donating offshore money to the reelection campaign of Bill Clinton.
“This was very discouraging for the Chinese people,” he said.
While Yang stepped down as a fundraiser for the Asian GOP last February, she wasn’t formally terminated from her other volunteer position until the national media blitz on March 8 about a selfie she took with Trump at a Super Bowl party at his West Palm Beach golf club.
Wasserman Schultz, a member of the House committee responsible for oversight of the nation’s national security programs, told the Herald she is concerned about Yang’s access to the president.
“These revelations raise very serious, disturbing concerns,” Wasserman Schultz said. “We’re talking about a woman who essentially created her business after contributing tens of thousands of dollars to the Trump campaign with the express purpose of ... using her relationship with the Trump administration to profit. If she has significant ties to the Chinese government, that makes it even more disturbing. This is a situation that is clearly unethical. It is very troubling, it raises all kinds of questions and cries out for a deeper investigation.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said Yang’s case “ought to be looked into” if credible allegations exist, according to ABC News.