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News & Reviews
Mar-a-Lago: a top destination for Trump tourism
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 company who travels to the United States for business frequently enough to maintain a U.S. bank account.
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 cell phones, a laptop, an external hard-drive and a thumb drive containing “malicious malware.”
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 a federal magistrate judge sophisticated questions about how her case would proceed in terms of securing bond and hiring an attorney, through her interpreter. Details of the hearing were first reported by CNN.
“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, 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 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 had traveled to the United States carrying cash and stated that she believed her U.S. bank account did not hold more than $5,000. 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 had a Wells Fargo bank account because she was looking for a “business partner” in the United States but nothing had panned out.
Zhang showed up to the 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 to be a relative of a club member with the same name. 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 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.
Miami Herald staff writer Jay Weaver and Miami Herald writer Keenan Chen contributed to this report.