Politics

‘Extreme’ flight risk: Chinese woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago says she owns $1.3M home, BMW

Mar-a-Lago: a top destination for Trump tourism

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.
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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.

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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:


Yujing Zhang — the Chinese woman arrested Saturday after allegedly trying to bring an unusual number of electronic devices into President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club — identified herself at a court hearing earlier this week as an investor and a consultant for a Shanghai private-equity firm who appears to have amassed considerable wealth.

Speaking through a Mandarin interpreter, Zhang told a magistrate judge that she owns a $1.3 million house in China and drives a BMW, according to an audio recording of her first appearance at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach.

A federal prosecutor at the hearing said Zhang poses an “extreme risk of flight” from the United States if she is released from custody.

“She has no ties to the United States in general or to the Southern District of Florida in particular,” said the prosecutor, John McMillan.

McMillan also claimed there were “security implications” that should prevent Zhang from making phone calls while detained.

The FBI is investigating whether Zhang — who told U.S. Secret Service agents she had traveled to Mar-a-Lago from Shanghai to attend a social event — was working as a Chinese intelligence operative, sources familiar with the inquiry told the Miami Herald. Her arrest at the president’s private club revitalized a wider ongoing federal investigation, first reported by the Herald, that had for several months examined potential Chinese espionage activities in South Florida. An affidavit attached to a criminal complaint said she was carrying four cellphones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive containing “malicious malware.” Details of the hearing were first reported by CNN.

Zhang is charged with lying to a federal officer and entering restricted property. She has not been charged with any counts related to espionage. Chinese diplomatic officials in the United States say they are aware of Zhang’s arrest and offering assistance.

During the April 1 hearing, Zhang asked sophisticated questions about how her case would proceed in terms of securing bond and hiring an attorney, which were relayed to the judge by her interpreter.

“You’re obviously very intelligent because your questions are excellent for a defendant in this situation,” remarked the judge, William Matthewman, who added that the hour-and-15-minute initial appearance was probably the longest that had ever taken place before him.

While Zhang requested an interpreter at the hearing, the Secret Service noted that she had exhibited a “detailed knowledge of, and ability to converse in and understand even subtle nuances of ... the English language” during her interactions with agents at Mar-a-Lago.

The affidavit submitted by a Secret Service agent stated that Zhang read a document out loud in English and would “question agents about the context of certain words throughout the form.”

At the court hearing, Zhang named her employer as Shanghai Zhirong Asset Management, a private-equity firm, but said she was paid on a “per project” basis and had made no money in 2019. She said she travels to the United States for business frequently enough to maintain a U.S. bank account but believed the account did not hold more than $5,000 and said she often brings cash on her trips. She said she had arrived in the country a short time before her arrest.

“My savings are mainly in China,” Zhang told the court.

Zhang will remain in custody pending a detention hearing Monday, but Matthewman ruled she should be allowed to make domestic telephone calls to seek a private attorney. She ultimately chose to be represented by a federal public defender.

She told the court that her family lives in China and said she would like to make international calls and use the Internet to contact relatives and friends, something the magistrate judge denied. She said that she opened the Wells Fargo bank account because she was looking for a “business partner” in the United States but nothing had panned out.

Yang_trump.jpg
Li ‘Cindy’ Yang posted a card on Facebook sent to her by President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump, above left. Yang’s Super Bowl selfie with Trump, above right.

Zhang showed up at Trump’s Palm Beach club around noon on Saturday asking to use the pool and was allowed through an initial Secret Service checkpoint, according to the criminal complaint.

In the affidavit, a Secret Service agent wrote that “due to a potential language barrier issue,” Mar-a-Lago security believed Zhang was related to a club member with the same surname. But a receptionist soon realized she was not an approved guest. At that point, Zhang said she had been invited to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” between China and the United States. While there was no function by that name on the social calendar, a Chinese-based group called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association had promoted an event on that same day.

The function was one of two events originally scheduled to take place Saturday and promoted online by Cindy Yang, a South Florida massage parlor owner who also ran a business that promised Chinese business executives face time and photographs with Donald Trump. Both events had been canceled after the Herald published a selfie Yang took with Trump. Zhang apparently never got the message that the events were off.

The arrest at Mar-a-Lago is causing consternation in Congress. U.S. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said Thursday that he plans to have the Secret Service brief him and Rep. Jim Jordan, the committee’s ranking Republican, over security protocols at the president’s club.

“The two main questions are how secure is it with regard to safety of the president and his family, and then we want to know about security with regard to communications. It seems like anybody can kind of mosey up and bring communications equipment,” Cummings said.

“You cannot play around with the safety of the president and the first family,” he said. “You just can’t do it.”



Miami Herald staff writers Jay Weaver and Alex Daugherty, and Miami Herald writer Keenan Chen contributed to this report.
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