Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution
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
A full-blown spy mystery with a Florida twist is playing out at the president’s winter White House in tony Palm Beach.
A Chinese national sits in federal custody, the public face of a newly revealed FBI investigation into whether one of America’s biggest global rivals is using Donald Trump’s eagerness to sell access to himself at his own private club to its advantage. Yujing Zhang, who the Secret Service says was caught slinking around Mar-a-Lago last weekend with four cell phones, waffling explanations for her presence and a thumb drive loaded with “malicious malware,” could be anything from an unwitting businesswoman to a linchpin in an international intelligence operation.
Speaking through a Mandarin interpreter at a preliminary hearing this week, Zhang said she’s an employee of a private equity firm who flew in from Shanghai to attend an ultimately canceled social event and hopefully meet with the president’s family to talk shop. Federal agents, on the other hand, believe she may be a Chinese intelligence agent and an “extreme” flight risk.
Determining which scenario is closer to the truth is an effort that feels like a spy novel with considerable national security implications.
But if you peel back the layers around Zhang’s arrest and the public’s awareness of its significance, the story begins to feel less like a John le Carré book and more like an only-in-Florida Carl Hiaasen tale. Because before there was a furor around a possible spy infiltrating Trump’s South Florida resort, there were revelations that a Chinese-American businesswoman had built a cottage industry of selling access to Trump back home in the Far East and a tabloid scandal involving a strip mall day spa in a sleepy South Florida beach town and a Super Bowl-winning NFL owner caught on hidden camera with his pants down.
“The idea that this is about a Chinese spy ring disguised as a rub-and-tug disguised as a day spa ... It’s just peak. We’ve reached peak Florida,” said Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, who’s built a cult following shooting popular documentaries about the state’s craziest stories.
It’s hard to remember now as investigators try to determine whether foreign intelligence operatives are buying their way into Trump’s inner circle with campaign donations and six-figure club membership fees, but the first thread to unravel in this yarn came in October with a tip from the Martin County Sheriff’s Office and a Google search of a massage parlor review site called Rubmaps.com.
At the time, the sheriff’s office was well into a human trafficking investigation that would ultimately shutter 10 massage parlors and result in charges against more than 300 men. They’d flagged the Orchids of Asia day spa in Jupiter, and within weeks surveillance and health department inspections discovered evidence of women living in the spa and performing illegal sex acts.
In January, police began following suspected johns. And in the middle of the month, according to Kraft’s attorneys, police faked a bomb scare, evacuated the business and installed hidden cameras that they then used to record nude massages and sex acts.
Kraft, who was charged with a misdemeanor in late February, has publicly apologized but pleaded not guilty. His attorneys say police botched the whole operation by lying about the pretense of a human trafficking investigation to gain a warrant for the cameras and by conducting illegal traffic stops to gain the identities of their suspected johns, including Kraft, who was required to turn over his ID even though he was being driven by a chauffeur.
The whole thing might have begun and ended with Kraft’s opprobrium. But while reporting on the sting, the Miami Herald discovered a bizarre twist: on the night that Kraft was celebrating his team’s sixth Super Bowl win, the woman who founded the spa where police had set up their sting was at a party with a close friend of Kraft’s who also happens to be the president of the United States.
On her social media account, Li “Cindy” Yang had posted a selfie she snapped that night with the president. And, it turns out, the photo was just one of many that Yang had assembled with high-ranking Republicans, including congressmen, senators, media figures and Florida’s governor — photos she’s used as a marketing tool for an enterprise offering access to U.S. politicians to businesses in China.
Trump told reporters this week that he takes hundreds of selfies a day with adoring fans and doesn’t know Yang.
“Who is that?” Trump said when asked about his relationship with Yang. “I don’t know anything about her. I take a lot of pictures with people that look like a selfie or something.”
Whether Trump knows it or not, by the time he took a selfie with her, Yang had become a regular presence at Mar-a-Lago. She’d helped sell tickets for the galas scheduled in the wake of a white-glove exodus that followed Trump’s controversial “both sides” comments in the wake of deadly white nationalist riots in Charlottesville. She began working within South Florida’s small Republican Asian community to package Mar-a-Lago events in business-diplomacy tours marketed to Chinese investors looking to make connections with American politicians.
Yang has maintained that she has no allegiance to the Chinese government, and her attorney says she’s the victim of bigotry and rampant and unfair speculation about her motives. But her business associate, Charles Lee, created travel packages that were explicitly intended to promote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2015 business diplomacy agenda.
The idea that a billionaire’s sex act could expose a Chinese spy and influence operation may — and probably should — seem preposterous.
But the Sunshine State is exactly the type of place where a ridiculous turn of the screw can bring down an empire. It was only a few years ago that a fight over a $4,000 investment with a fake doctor based out of a strip mall clinic led an angry whistleblower to expose one of the biggest steroid scandals in Major League Baseball history and damaged the career of Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez.
“Who would have thought that this Robert Kraft thing was going to end in a Tom Clancy novel?” said Corben, whose latest film, “Screwball,” documents the Biogenesis scandal.
There’s also the fact that Trump’s presidency has been built on unconventional relationships and sordid financial arrangements. In his recent book “Let Me Finish,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says Trump’s White House staff has been built on a “revolving door of deeply flawed individuals — amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons — who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for, sometimes seemingly without so much as a background check via Google or Wikipedia.”
And just as there are odd links between Yang, Kraft and Trump, there are connections between Yang and Zhang.
According to an arrest affidavit, among the several stories that Zhang told the Secret Service at Mar-a-Lago was that she’d come to the resort to attend an event that had been promoted by Yang on social media and hopefully meet with the president’s family about “Chinese and American foreign economic relations.” The event had been canceled after the Miami Herald wrote about the extent of Yang’s influence peddling at Mar-a-Lago.
Zhang told the Secret Service that she’d been invited by a man named “Charles,” who is likely Charles Lee, Yang’s associate who brings some of the clients from China.
The FBI has also spotlighted Yang and Zhang’s activities as part of a counterintelligence investigation first reported by the Miami Herald that began prior to Kraft being charged and had until then gone somewhat dormant.
Zhang hasn’t been charged with any espionage activities, nor for that matter has Yang been charged with any crime of any nature. But prosecutors with the Southern District of Florida are now trying to keep Zhang in a Florida jail on charges of lying to federal agents and trespassing while trying to determine if she was in South Florida on a simultaneously clandestine and bumbling mission.
“What the Trump presidency has normalized in American culture is the abnormal. The abnormal is routine. The illegitimate is the currency of the realm,” said Fernand Amandi, a Democatic Miami pollster and host of the “Strange Days” podcast, which often revolves around the latest White House controversy. “You might say Donald Trump is the national consciousness manifestation of Florida Man.”
But, as Amandi notes, while the story around Yang and Zhang might feel absurd and over-the-top, the underlying concerns being investigated by the federal government could be profound. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Mark Warner wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray to ask for a risk assessment of classified information at the president’s resort, and to remind Wray that they hadn’t heard back from the FBI on a request to look into “concerns associated with any interactions between [Cindy Yang] and the president.”
Yang has mostly laid low ever since the Herald first published her photo. She sold her Palm Beach County home and hasn’t been seen since making TV appearances to declare her innocence two weeks ago. Her attorney and spokesperson say she has been on a well-deserved vacation away from the spotlight. While they say Yang remains in the country, they refused to provide proof of any kind.
Meanwhile, Zhang’s arraignment hearing is set for April 15, and her presence in a federal jail cell could lead to new insights into the whole imbroglio.
Or, it could just lead to more questions, and more intrigue around the subtropical romping grounds of the world’s most powerful part-time Florida man.
“We’ll see what happened, where she’s from, who she is,” Trump said this week after dismissing concerns about Chinese spying at Mar-a-Lago and using the word “fluke” to describe Zhang’s ability to access his resort. “The result is they were able to get her and she is suffering the consequences of whatever she had in mind.”
This article has been updated to reflect that Robert Kraft was not arrested by Jupiter police. He was charged as part of the sting operation.