Mar-a-Lago: a top destination for Trump tourism
More from the series
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:
Who has gained access to President Trump and Mar-a-Lago through Cindy Yang?
‘She lies to everyone’: Feds say Mar-a-Lago intruder had hidden-camera detector in hotel
Feds are investigating possible Chinese spying at Mar-a-Lago and Cindy Yang, sources say
Trump Tourism: How Charlottesville enabled Cindy Yang to market Mar-a-Lago in China
Trump cheered Patriots to Super Bowl victory with founder of spa where Kraft was busted
Several dozen people, mostly speaking Chinese, gathered in a rented-out room on the ground floor of New York’s Trump World Tower on Oct. 26, 2017, for a PowerPoint presentation.
A 72-story behemoth of black glass overlooking United Nations Plaza, Trump World Tower is a cathedral of capitalism. The speaker was a middle-management type plucked from the bureaucratic maw of China’s Communist Party.
Nonetheless, to the host and moderator of the event, Xinyue “Daniel” Lou, Trump World Tower was the perfect venue for a dissertation on overseas investment by state-owned Chinese enterprises.
Lou is a United States-based promoter for the Chinese Communist Party and former writer for Chinese media, a job he got after graduating from Columbia Graduate School of Journalism in 1994.
He is also an avid Trump supporter.
Last year, the Chinese-born American citizen took his support to a new level. Lou signed a contract with the Republican National Committee to become an official fundraiser for President Donald Trump’s reelection campaign — at the same time Trump was launching a bellicose trade war against Lou’s homeland. Trump recently vowed that communism’s “days are numbered,” excoriating any Democrat who dared espouse any hint of sympathy toward socialism.
It’s a strange-bedfellows tale with national security implications. Trump needed to fill seats at private galas and campaign events, while Chinese capitalists wanted to cozy up to the American businessman-turned-president — an interest encouraged by a communist government looking for access.
Out of this marriage of supply and demand emerged a tacitly Chinese state-endorsed gray market selling tickets to Trump-related events to Chinese business people. It’s where Lou’s life overlapped with that of Li “Cindy” Yang — founder of a chain of South Florida Asian day spas, whose latest startup involved selling presidential access over Chinese-language social media.
Lou was pictured with Yang as the two worked the door for a “Safari Night” fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in early 2018, hosted by the president’s sister Elizabeth Trump Grau. Through her spokesperson, Yang said she didn’t have a personal relationship with Lou but that the two attended several events together.
Lou, like Yang, has a patchy voter history that suggests little commitment to U.S. politics before he donned the MAGA ball cap. Before Trump, Lou had made only one federal political donation, to the Bush-Cheney campaign in 2003. Since Trump, he has pumped roughly $50,000 into various Republican political committees.
His support for Trump appears more pragmatic than ideological. Lou currently runs a consulting firm whose vague mission statement touts “unbiased views of the world.” In early 2016, he advised clients via WeChat — the Chinese version of Facebook — to buy tickets to a dinner with Hillary Clinton when it appeared to him that she was destined for the White House.
Lou once told an associate that the Republicans and Democrats are exactly the same. But the self-described “serial entrepreneur” told Chinese state media that Trump’s inauguration was a good opportunity for Chinese business.
‘A new world’
International business and large-scale public/private investment projects are the backbone of the Communist Party’s new global influence strategy under Xi Jinping, the strongman president who took office in 2012.
“It’s a new world,” said Joseph Augustyn, a 28-year veteran of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Clandestine Service in East Asia. “It’s not communism in the Cold War sense. It’s communism/capitalism, under a dictatorial regime.”
Chinese capitalists have become the vanguard of Communist Party global influence under Xi’s business-diplomacy agenda. The party recruits from its growing capitalist class on the mainland and abroad to nudge high-level international contacts and friends toward support of China’s foreign policy initiatives.
The Communist Party has approached well-connected Chinese Americans to work for the government by offering handsome rewards, Lou told an attendee of the Trump World event, who shared information on the condition of anonymity. There was no indication in the conversation that Lou was working for or with the Communist Party directly.
International Chinese elites are also sometimes recruited by the Chinese government as intelligence-gathering assets, Augustyn said.
“The Chinese are very well known for briefing people who are going to places that they are interested in — briefing them beforehand,” he said.
Federal authorities are investigating whether Yang’s business of selling access to Mar-a-Lago could be exploited by Chinese intelligence services. It’s part of a broader investigation of possible Chinese espionage that began in South Florida in late 2018.
The investigation ramped up after the arrest of Yujing Zhang, the Mar-a-Lago intruder who a federal judge recently said was “up to something nefarious” when she tried to enter the club on March 30 with a trove of electronics and a changing cover story that involved attending a Yang-sponsored event. It’s being treated as a national security case, although Zhang has not been charged under the Espionage Act.
There’s no evidence of any successful security breach, but Trump’s Mar-a-Lago presents unique security challenges given its semi-public nature and the many guests who pass through its doors.
“The president of the United States is probably the number one intelligence target,” said David Kris, an assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration and founder of the consulting firm Culper Partners. “Donald Trump is very, very connected to Mar-a-Lago, so Mar-a-Lago then becomes a very important intelligence target.”
Through their positions as high-level fundraisers, together Yang and Lou have brought dozens of guests to events where Trump, his family and top Republican advisers were present, according to a Herald analysis of social media accounts. Their efforts have been celebrated both by the RNC and event planners at Mar-a-Lago.
According to Lou’s LinkedIn, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel offered Lou an official position as a volunteer fundraiser for Trump Victory after Lou brought 30 Chinese guests to a $2,700-per-seat fundraiser for Trump’s reelection held at Cipriani Restaurant in New York on Dec. 2, 2017. As an official fundraiser, Lou subsequently advertised Trump campaign events across the country to his friends on WeChat.
Lou told the Miami Herald that the RNC had advised him not to comment on his fundraising activities for the committee, his association with Yang, or his previous activities in conjunction with the Communist Party.
“He should be vetted. No question about it,” said Augustyn. “They [the RNC] should know that they better tread very cautiously.”
Lou recently signed on for another year volunteering with the Trump campaign, according to a post on his WeChat. He wrote in Chinese, “I’ve certainly increased the opportunities and channels for talking to the highest levels of the Republican Party and to Trump,” and that he planned to use that access to promote Chinese-American voices in the Republican Party.
An RNC official, speaking on background, declined to answer questions about if or how volunteer fundraisers like Lou are vetted for potential conflicts or associations with foreign governments.
The official offered the following statement: “Members of the Trump Victory Finance Committee pledge to abide by federal campaign finance laws. In order for anyone to attend an event where they will be in the vicinity of the president or the vice president, they must pass a vigorous vetting process that is administered by federal law enforcement officials.”
Intelligence gathering without ‘spies’
Scandalous stories of Russian spying have dominated the American psyche. However, according to a recent article in Wired Magazine, while everyone was fixating on Russians, Chinese agents have stolen enough technology secrets to catapult the nation into the 21st Century as an up-and-coming global superpower.
“They’re professional, they’re meticulous, and they’re patient,” Augustyn said. “When you compare what the Chinese have done in terms of stealing intellectual property, and targeting individuals in the U.S., what the Russians have done pales by comparison.”
The Chinese intelligence service largely depends on its citizens to aid and abet their operations by providing information on people and places of interest, he said.
Although they’re almost certainly not spies in the trenchcoat-wearing sense, Augustyn said any Chinese national (non-U.S. citizen) going to Mar-a- Lago or coming into close contact with Trump and his family through these events and galas might provide valuable information to Chinese intelligence officers — the real spies — whether they wanted to or not.
Under China’s new National Intelligence Law passed in summer 2017, Chinese citizens and corporations must cooperate with requests from the state’s intelligence service. That could mean simply providing a verbal account of who attended a particular event, or handing over photos from events, emails or other information.
Chinese law states that those who “obstruct” Chinese intelligence operations can be detained and criminally punished.
The Chinese government would have a hard time enforcing the National Intelligence Law against U.S. citizens like Lou and Yang. However, that would not stop intelligence officials from trying to recruit them or others. Someone with high-level access to people close to the president would be an attractive asset.
“The Chinese are famous for their access agents,” Augustyn said. “An access agent in the world of espionage is not really a spy but someone who has access who can provide information on people.”
For example, an access agent inside the RNC might be able to identify a person close to the president or his security team who has a “vulnerability” — a drinking problem, a lot of debt, an affinity for child pornography, an affair — and feed that to an intelligence agent, who could use it as leverage to gain cooperation, Augustyn said.
If Lou has an ideology, it’s not political. It is to jump at business opportunities wherever they present themselves. Along with other Chinese elites, that’s where he finds common ground with Trump, despite the Republican Party’s traditional opposition to most of Beijing’s foreign policy.
“Trump’s obsession with ‘winning’ also comports with the winner-take-all attitude of the elite in today’s China, which is less communist than ruthlessly Darwinian,” wrote Benjamin Carlson, a Beijing correspondent for Agence France-Presse in a recent piece for the Atlantic Monthly.
While Lou clearly loves living in the United States and some of his recent posts appear critical of the Chinese Communist Party, Lou’s online profile suggests he generally supports the Chinese government and fervently celebrated China’s most recent strongman leader.
“President Xi wants to revive Marxism in 21st China. We certainly wish he succeeds,” Lou wrote in Chinese on his WeChat profile.
Lou also wrote and publicized a multi-part action plan for how his New York-based nonprofits and media companies would orient around Xi’s vision for a future society called the “Chinese Dream.” The dream is outlined in Xi’s manifesto for “China’s ascendance to military, economic, and cultural power,” according to a review of Xi’s book, also in Atlantic Monthly.
During his more than two decades living in New York, Lou has maintained contact with the Chinese government through media connections, cultural events and conferences promoting international investment projects. On Aug. 1, 2016 — right around when he began to campaign for President Trump — Lou attended a gala at the Chinese Embassy in Washington, D.C., to celebrate the anniversary of the creation of the People’s Liberation Army of China.
“You don’t get invited to those unless somebody personally invites you,” Augustyn said. “He got invited by some Chinese military official, or diplomat, or government official.”
At Trump World Tower in 2017, Lou hosted Communist Party officials who promoted Xi’s latest strategy for expanding China’s global influence — sometimes called “The New Silk Road.”
In one Communist Party-sponsored video, Lou called the program “mutually beneficial” for businesses in both the United States and China. The Center for New American Security, a Washington-based think tank, calls the infrastructure program “a central tool for advancing China’s geo-political ambitions” that could enable broader intelligence-gathering by the Chinese government.
Lou is not, nor has he ever been, registered as a lobbyist for a foreign government, according to the U.S. Department of Justice, which keeps a registry of all foreign agents.
Federal law requires registration by anyone working on behalf of a foreign government or foreign political party. However, if all of Lou’s actions on behalf of the Chinese government were non-compensated and voluntary, his promotional activity would not violate the law.