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More than a year before her Super Bowl selfie with the president, Li “Cindy” Yang brought two Chinese-born tech executives — an Australia-based cryptocurrency guru known in the industry as “the Martian” and a startup CEO whose firm recently became a jersey sponsor for the Dallas Mavericks — to take formal photos with President Donald Trump.
Both men flashed a thumbs-up for the camera. So did Trump.
It was a big moment — and it came with a big price tag: $50,000 per photo, benefiting the president’s re-election campaign.
But neither Ryan Xu nor Lucas Lu appear to have paid for the privilege. A search of a federal database showed no record of either man giving to Trump Victory, the political action committee that sold tickets — as well as perks like photos with the president — for the Dec. 2, 2017, breakfast fundraiser hosted by the Republican National Committee in New York City.
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So who paid Trump Victory for their photos?
Yang isn’t saying — but she and three associates with an Asian-American political group donated a total of $135,500 to Trump Victory in the weeks leading up to the event. None of those associates would comment either. One of them told the Miami Herald she could not recall making a $25,000 donation listed in her name and address.
Yang and her associates have advertised businesses that connect Chinese clients with U.S. politicians. Their strategy reflects a growing industry selling tickets to U.S. political or charity events through foreign social-media sites — sometimes at marked-up prices.
Selling tickets to campaign fundraisers without disclosing the buyer to the Federal Election Commission is illegal. Selling tickets to foreign nationals, who are banned from donating to American political causes, would be an additional violation of U.S. law. Only U.S. citizens and permanent residents can contribute, although foreign nationals can attend fundraisers if they do not reimburse anyone for their tickets. It would be legal for Yang and her associates to give away tickets and high-dollar extras like photos with the president as gifts, but illegal to sell them.
Through a spokesman, Lu said a friend gifted him a ticket to the event, which is legal as long as he never paid anyone back. He declined to name the friend. Xu did not respond to emails and calls.
A spokesman for Lucas Lu provided a copy of his green card, issued three weeks before the event. It is unclear if Ryan Xu would have been legally able to pay for his presidential photo. He lives primarily in Australia and his U.S. immigration status could not be determined.
An RNC spokeswoman said both Xu and Lu were guests of a U.S. citizen — and had been vetted by the Secret Service — but declined to name the donor or donors who brought them. The RNC would have little way of knowing whether any guests had reimbursed donors for tickets.
Yang — an Asian day-spa magnate who founded and formerly owned the spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft stands accused of soliciting prostitution — has become the subject of much interest and scrutiny since the Miami Herald published photos of her with President Trump and various Florida Republican leaders. She advertised her U.S. political connections, while maintaining ties with mainland Chinese organizations, including South Florida chapters overseen by China’s Communist Party. She had shown scant interest in politics before Trump’s presidential campaign.
This week congressional Democrats requested a counterintelligence investigation into her activities, including a look at whether she violated foreign lobbying rules or laws governing the opaque world of campaign finance.
Yang — who has not been charged with wrongdoing, either in the world of campaign finance or massage parlor-style day spas — and her attorneys did not respond to requests for comment. They have defended her as a law-abiding American who is being targeted for her support of Trump.
Questions of foreign influence and money in U.S. politics are front and center in Washington, D.C. Special Counsel Robert Mueller is currently investigating possible interference from Russia and other foreign powers in the 2016 presidential election. Lobbyist Sam Patten last year pleaded guilty to helping a Ukrainian oligarch illegally purchase four tickets to the 2017 presidential inauguration.
Many guests at the 2017 New York fundraiser did not speak English, according to several people who attended. RNC officials confirmed the presence of Chinese nationals to The Washington Post last year.
President Trump noted the unusually high number of Chinese people at his 2017 fundraiser, joking that American businessmen would have to do better to keep up with the Chinese at his events, several attendees said.
Photos with American leaders are considered valuable currency in business circles abroad.
Lu later tweeted out the photo to his roughly 8,000 social media followers, saying that “President Trump [was] happy” with a cryptocurrency blockchain technology that Lu had developed. His other company, 5miles, offers an online marketplace through a mobile app. Last year, the company, which has offices in Beijing and Dallas, secured a three-year deal to place its patch on the Dallas Mavericks’ jersey, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram reported. Lu’s spokesman said he may have met Yang at the event but did not know her.
Xu, a bitcoin miner whose business is mostly outside the United States, was more restrained when sharing his photo with the president on social media. “The highlight of this pic is my belt,” he wrote in Chinese. He seems to have drawn some inspiration from the Trump campaign, however. In 2019, he wrote “Let’s Make Bitcoin Great Again” in several social media posts.
In Chinese-language social media posts and news accounts, both men were listed as guests of Yang’s political group, the Washington, D.C.-based National Committee of Asian-American Republicans. The group is often called the Asian GOP.
An event that launched a new business
At the time of the December 2017 event, Yang was the primary fundraiser for the Asian GOP, recruiting guests for fundraisers like the Trump breakfast, according to the group’s executive director, Cliff Li.
In addition to the tech executives, Yang’s guest list for the Asian GOP group attending the ritzy breakfast at Cipriani restaurant included about a dozen other people, according to social media posts and Chinese-language news coverage of the event.
Perhaps most notable was Jie Yang, a Chinese financier accused of securities fraud in China who is now living in New York. He was listed in the postings as a “presidential” level guest of the Asian GOP, along with Lu and Xu.
Jie Yang said he got his photo taken with the president as well, but he was never sent a copy. In an initial interview, he said he had snuck past the Secret Service to have an official photo taken with the president. He later walked his comment back and said one of the event organizers had informally snapped a shot of him and the president.
Speaking of his legal troubles back home he said: “The Chinese Communist Party’s policies [are] terrible. They always harass businesspeople like me.”
Xianqin Qu, the co-founder of Yang’s charity, Women’s Charity Foundation, is a leader in the foreign arm of the Chinese Communist Party. Qu attended the breakfast, too, and took the opportunity to snap a photo with Kellyanne Conway, the president’s special counselor.
None of Yang’s guests donated to Trump Victory in their own names, according to contribution records. Basic admission started at $1,000, with VIP access going for $2,700.
However, in the weeks before the event, Yang and three associates embarked on a flurry of giving to Trump Victory.
Yang donated $23,500 in three payments. Li Jing, a New York-based Chinese socialite who once told a Chinese-language magazine that there is “zero distance” between her and the Trumps, gave $27,000. (The Asian GOP’s director said Jing had helped Yang recruit guests.)
Although one guest interviewed by the Herald said he got his ticket through Jing, she denied being a recruiter or fundraiser for the Asian GOP. She said any donation she made was for herself only and she could not recall contributing $25,000, although she said she made two $1,000 donations around that time. (The quote about the distance between her and the Trumps, she told the Miami Herald, was a literal reference to how far away she was standing from Ivanka Trump in a photo.)
Jon Deng, whom the Asian GOP website listed as director of its Palm Beach County chapter, and his wife donated $85,000. Neither appears to have attended the event in New York.
Hui Liu said her husband, Deng, was traveling. Asked about the donations, she said: “I do not want to talk about that.” Deng did not return phone messages.
Cindy Yang, Jon Deng, Hui Liu and Li Jing all appear to be permanent residents or U.S. citizens.
Cliff Li, the Asian GOP’s executive director, said Yang was a great fundraiser, but had come to the group with a shaky grasp of campaign-finance law and they split soon after the event. After Li banned foreign nationals from coming to political events as guests of the Asian GOP, Yang quit as a fundraiser.
Still, she wouldn’t need the credibility derived from the Asian GOP for much longer. The 2017 event seemed to serve as a launching point for her new career, one of high-level photo taking, back slapping and influence peddling to wealthy Chinese.
Nine days after facilitating Xu and Lu’s photos, Yang checked into an event at Mar-a-Lago for the first time, according to her Facebook page. The day after that, she registered a consulting business in Florida promising Chinese clients photos with the president and access to his inner circle.
Yang spent the next year bouncing from political fundraisers to charity galas, frequenting the White House, various Trump Hotels and Mar-a-Lago. Last month, she snapped a selfie with Trump during the Super Bowl party at his West Palm Beach golf resort. She was planning to move to Washington, D.C.
Enforcement of campaign finance violations has waxed and waned over the past two decades, and seems to be making a resurgence as a priority now, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an elections law professor at Stetson University. The Supreme Court has routinely upheld the need for transparency concerning who is donating to and funding political campaigns.
“The voter needs to know who’s supporting this particular candidate because that might help them decide who to vote for,” she said.
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal and Miami Herald writers Selina Cheng, Keenan Chen and Jane Lee contributed to this report.