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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:
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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
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A federal prosecutor argued in court Monday that Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman arrested trying to enter President Donald Trump’s private Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, “lies to everyone she encounters,” adding that a search of her hotel room uncovered more than $8,000 in cash, as well as a “signal-detector” device used to reveal hidden cameras.
Found in the search: $7,500 in U.S. hundred-dollar bills and $663 in Chinese currency, in addition to nine USB drives, five SIM cards and other electronics, according to federal prosecutor Rolando Garcia. Signal detectors are portable devices that can detect radio waves, magnetic fields and hidden-camera equipment.
Prosecutors are treating the case as a national security matter and an FBI counterintelligence squad is investigating, sources familiar with the inquiry told the Miami Herald.
Zhang gave conflicting accounts of why she went to Mar-a-Lago on March 30, at one point saying she had been invited to attend a social event, according to an affidavit filed by a U.S. Secret Service agent. But she was found to be carrying several electronic devices, including a thumb drive containing “malicious malware,” the Secret Service said. That raised suspicions among federal investigators — who were already probing possible Chinese intelligence operations in South Florida — that Zhang could be engaged in espionage.
“The preliminary analysis of her phones shows she was not there for an event at Mar-a-Lago,” Garcia said during a detention hearing at the federal courthouse in West Palm Beach.
But Zhang’s federal public defender, Robert Adler, presented evidence that Zhang had in fact paid for a travel package that would include a visit to Mar-a-Lago — a fact that could weaken the government’s allegation that she lied to the Secret Service about the event in order to gain access to the president’s club. The party Zhang said she planned to attend had been promoted online by Li “Cindy” Yang, a former South Florida massage-parlor owner who ran a business that promised Chinese clients photos and meetings with Trump. But the “Safari Night” charity gala had been canceled after the Miami Herald first reported on Yang’s access-selling business last month, including a selfie she took with the president.
Monday’s hearing was held to determine if Zhang should be released on bond. Federal magistrate judge William Matthewman delayed making a ruling, saying he will decide whether to order Zhang’s continued detention or grant her a bond next Monday, when she will be arraigned. Matthewman said he extended the hearing to give Zhang’s defense team more time to contact people in China about helping with arrangements if she is released on bond. She is being held in the Palm Beach County jail.
Zhang faces charges of lying to a federal officer and entering restricted property. She was carrying four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and the thumb drive when she was detained at Mar-a-Lago.
The incident has raised new concerns about security at Mar-a-Lago — and whether foreign governments can use the president’s private businesses as a spying portal. On Monday, CNN reported that Trump was removing the head of the Secret Service, Randolph “Tex” Alles, although a source told the Herald’s Washington bureau his ouster was not related to the Mar-a-Lago arrest. The Secret Service, which seldom comments on security matters, had issued a statement last week that seemed to lay blame for Zhang’s entry on the staff of the president’s club.
On Monday, wearing a short-sleeved, navy-blue detainee uniform and chewing her lower lip, Zhang glanced repeatedly at the crowd of journalists who had gathered for the hearing. Her hands were clenched in fists so tight they began to turn red. She appeared to speak in English with one of the attorneys representing her, although a court-appointed Mandarin interpreter was also present. When the hearing started, she began taking notes on a yellow legal pad.
Adler, Zhang’s attorney, pushed back during the hearing on the idea that she was a spy.
“She did not have the type of devices that can be associated with espionage activities,” he said.
Garcia, the prosecutor, replied that “there is no allegation [in the criminal complaint] she was involved in espionage ... all of this is irrelevant.”
“That’s good to know,” Adler said.
Later, Garcia said he could not rule out more serious charges.
“There are a lot of questions that remain to be answered,” he told the judge.
Investigators are still trying to determine the nature of the malware Zhang allegedly brought into the club, sources told the Herald. It is not clear how much of a threat the malware posed and whether it might have been intended to gather information at the president’s club or possibly to destroy an existing network or program, they said.
Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich, who interviewed Zhang on the day of her arrest, testified at the hearing. He stated that when another agent put Zhang’s thumb drive into his computer, it immediately began to install files, a “very out-of-the-ordinary” event that he had never seen happen before during this kind of analysis. The agent had to immediately stop the analysis to halt any further corruption of his computer, Ivanovich testified. The analysis is ongoing but still inconclusive, he said.
Zhang entered the country through Newark Liberty International Airport on a tourist visa on March 28, according to prosecutors. The U.S. State Department has since revoked her visa and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement put out a detainer on her, Garcia said. During a hearing last week, Zhang told the judge that she typically brings cash with her on trips to the United States but did not indicate that she had several thousand dollars. She had previously visited the United States on at least two occasions, in July 2016 and January 2017.
A social-media profile appearing to belong to Zhang shows she is a graduate of the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics. She held a securities license in China from December 2008 to January 2013, according to a Securities Association of China database. In an initial court appearance last week, she told a judge that she owns a $1.3 million home in China and drives a BMW, saying she works as an investor and consultant in Shanghai.
Breach at Mar-a-Lago
Zhang was arrested March 30 after trying to enter Mar-a-Lago shortly after noon.
She got past an initial Secret Service checkpoint by saying she wished to use the pool, according to a criminal complaint. Mar-a-Lago staff thought she was related to a club member. But a receptionist grew suspicious after Zhang said she had come to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” between China and the United States. No event by that name was scheduled for that day. She also told the Secret Service she had been invited by a Chinese friend named “Charles.”
Zhang may have miscommunicated the name of the event she wished to attend: The Herald has reported that a Chinese national named Charles Lee runs a business promoting events at Mar-a-Lago through his group the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which has no actual connection to the U.N. Many of the events also had been promoted by Yang.
Prosecutors said there is no evidence Zhang had any communication with a man named Charles. Nor is there any indication that the “United Nations” event existed, Garcia said, adding that another event on the calendar that night had been canceled. The group promoting that event had not advertised it as any kind of United Nations function, he said. In fact, the organization had taken the site down weeks before, he said. (The website for Yang’s company, GY U.S. Investments, was taken down in March after reporting from the Herald and other news organizations.)
Addressing the court, Zhang’s attorney Adler stated that “Charles” was Charles Lee. He said on Feb. 19 Zhang had paid $20,000 to a Beijing-based company that the Herald found has ties to Lee. The wire transfer seems to have been payment for a travel package that included entrance into Safari Night, Adler said. Safari Night was one of the events promoted by Yang. Lee had promoted a previous Safari Night in 2018.
In addition, the defense entered a Herald article into evidence. Adler pointed to reporting that showed Lee piggybacked off of Mar-a-Lago events promoted by Yang and bundled them into larger packages he sold to Chinese buyers hoping to meet Trump or members of his family. Adler said he believed that is the service Zhang paid for.
Adler also tried to poke holes in the government’s charge that Zhang lied to the Secret Service and Mar-a-Lago security to gain access to the club.
He asked Ivanovich, the Secret Service agent, if Zhang had given a “definitive answer” when questioned if she was related to a club member with the same surname.
“No, she did not,” Ivanovich said on the witness stand.
The agent said he conducted a four-and-a-half hour interview with Zhang at the Secret Service office in West Palm Beach. There was only video but no audio recording because Ivanovich said he did not realize the audio was not working.
Congressional Democrats have called for a counterintelligence investigation into Yang, whose activities have generated national scrutiny.
As it turned out, the FBI has been investigating possible Chinese espionage operations in South Florida since late last year, sources with knowledge of the inquiry exclusively told the Herald. Zhang’s arrest has sent the counterintelligence probe into overdrive. The FBI Counterintelligence Division in South Florida is also now examining Yang. The investigation had originally focused on other Chinese nationals doing business in South Florida or traveling to the region. (In February, a Chinese student was sentenced to one year in prison after he was caught taking photos and videos at the U.S. Naval Air Station in Key West.)
A spokeswoman for Yang has said she has done nothing wrong, has not been contacted by federal authorities and does not know Zhang, the alleged Mar-a-Lago intruder.
President Trump was in South Florida during the security breach but was away from Mar-a-Lago playing golf. Last week he called the incident a “fluke.” But Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told CBS News it could be an example of “the threat that China poses, the efforts they’re making inside the United States, not only against government officials but more broadly.”
Prior to her arrest, Zhang stayed at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach, about two miles up the road from the president’s club. The pastel-colored boutique hotel hosts high-end clientele, including Meryl Streep, who stayed the weekend after Zhang’s arrest, according to guests.