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A group of newcomers dressed in black tie with leopard print accents — a dress code dubbed “safari chic” — joined Palm Beach high society at Mar-a-Lago on Jan. 26, 2018.
Rather than the usual American Cancer Society dinner, a crown jewel of the 2018 charity season ended up being a “Safari Night” held for a recently re-opened youth-mentoring charity — a consequence of Mar-a-Lago losing half the season’s planned events after President Donald Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides” of a deadly white nationalist march in Charlottesville, Virginia, in mid-2017.
The gold-trimmed ballrooms were decorated with paper cutout lions and zebras for what was promised to be the “wildest ball of the year,” hosted by Elizabeth Trump Grau, the president’s older sister. The proceeds were to benefit the charity Young Adventurers.
Working the door was a recent addition to the Mar-a-Lago scene: Li “Cindy” Yang, an Asian-themed day-spa magnate making a name for herself both in Florida Republican Party fundraising circles — and in her native China.
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Yang’s invitations to Mar-a-Lago, Trump’s private club and resort, started coming after high society’s post-Charlottesville exodus. She helped promote the cobbled-together replacement galas, selling them online as opportunities for Chinese businessmen to gain face-time with the Trump family.
On Chinese social media, Safari Night became a “midnight carnival” of the American social and political elite and an important networking opportunity for businessmen from overseas. Dozens of people associated with her Asian-American political group turned out. She also recruited guests through her nonprofit group, Women’s Charity Foundation Inc. One of the group’s guests impressed the crowd by plunking down $40,000 for a pair of paintings, with the proceeds going to charity, according to a post on the foundation’s WeChat page which has subsequently been removed.
In addition to being the president’s home in Florida, Mar-a-Lago boasts an ornate private club that bills itself as “the world’s most celebrated” and the “epicenter” of Palm Beach’s social scene. Initial membership goes for $200,000 — a fee that doubled after Trump’s inauguration — plus annual dues. The club routinely hosts weddings and galas, and the president will sometimes go to Mar-a-Lago for the weekend, especially during winter.
In both years prior to Charlottesville, Mar-a-Lago hosted 33 events, according to the Herald’s analysis of the Palm Beach Daily News’ social events calendar. It dropped to 10 events in the season after Charlottesville.
When the usual white-gloved crowd of Palm Beach society abandoned Mar-a-Lago, those groups that sprung into the vacuum included the Young Adventurers, a charity whose spokesperson had been Dan Haggerty, the star of a little-remembered film and television show titled “Grizzly Adams,” and a newly formed female fan club called the Trumpettes.
Yang’s acumen for ticket sales to these events ensured she and her guests would continue to have access to a club struggling to fill seats — access Yang turned into a Florida-based business, GY US Investments, marketed to clients overseas.
Mar-a-Lago became a top destination for Trump tourism.
Selling access to private events is not new, and foreign nationals are not barred from giving contributions to private foundations or nonprofits as they are from giving to U.S. political campaigns.
But experts say Trump’s presidency is unique, and Mar-a-Lago in particular provides unprecedented levels of access.
“What’s different here is that the president and his family have a direct financial interest in putting on these event,” said Jeffrey Prescott, a former National Security Council aide in the Obama administration and a senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center. “There’s a personal financial interest we’ve never seen before.”
Complicating security efforts at Mar-a-Lago is the potential tension between counter-intelligence concerns and Mar-a-Lago’s need to make a profit, Prescott said.
Through his private estate, the president has profited from Yang’s many guests, who attended Mar-a-Lago events that charged hundreds, and sometimes thousands of dollars, for tickets. Part of the proceeds would go to charity, but a portion would always end up back with the Trump Organization that rented out the venue.
The delicate balance between the president’s public duties and private businesses have sparked legal disputes. A federal lawsuit from the attorneys general of Washington, D.C., and Maryland has challenged whether Trump’s hotels violate the emoluments clause of the constitution, which prevents office-holders from accepting gifts from foreign governments.
A spokeswoman said Yang was out-of-town and unavailable for an interview. Yang’s attorney, Evan Turk, declined to answer questions for this story but provided the following statement: “Our client has been a dedicated community volunteer to various charities, especially those benefiting children. In the political arena, she has been a committed volunteer. She developed friendships with people she has met within this community. As a result, many extreme assumptions have been made which [do] not reflect our client’s character. Our firm will not address assumptions that could only lead to wrong conclusions.”
The Trump Organization did not respond to a request for comment.
Access for sale at Mar-a-Lago
In Yang’s new world of selling access to the Trump family any Mar-a-Lago event would do, not only ones that would benefit his 2020 campaign for re-election.
She pitched a pro-Israel event — planned last minute by a local activist — as an opportunity to meet top American politicians. A Mar-a-Lago New Years party became an invite to an exclusive dinner with the president’s family. A fundraiser for orphaned babies by a Virginia-based Christian group became a chance to meet the president, according to her company website.
On her website, which was taken down after initial reporting, Yang said she invites “elites from various places, including Chinese elite in the U.S., Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Australia, Europe and other countries and regions.” One online advertisement for a planned 2019 event listed different levels of sponsorship; the top two with the most perks, Diamond Title Sponsor and Gold Sponsor, were reserved for foreigners only.
Yang’s ads caught the eye of Dr. Charles Lee, an event bundler and seller of access to Chinese clients looking for face-time with major politicians.
Lee bundled Yang’s 2018 Safari Night invitation into an all inclusive eight-day “business travel diplomacy package” that for $13,000 would take guests from Beijing to visit the United Nations, U.S. Congress, and finish at Trump’s South Florida residence. He brought three more Chinese businessmen to the pro-Israel event.
Jon Deng, who knew Yang through Florida’s small-but-growing Asian-American Republican community, said it was common knowledge that Mar-a-Lago events are packaged and advertised online in China.
“It’s sort of a known fact that there are buyers, and there are sellers,” he said.
In the 14 months after they were pictured together at Safari Night 2018, Lee would recruit clients for five more events advertised by Yang as opportunities to pay for face-time with Donald Trump.
Together Yang and Lee brought more than 20 guests to Mar-a-Lago in 2018, according to their posts on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of Facebook.
According to his website, Lee’s honored guests included an executive of a line of beauty products who settled for a photo with future Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis after Trump did not attend the pro-Israel event and a Chinese movie star who the New York Times first reported took a picture with both adult Trump sons on New Year’s Eve. She said she was staying with Yang at the time.
Yang and Lee also promoted access to a March 2018 fundraiser for Trump’s re-election campaign, an event only citizens and green card holders could legally pay to attend. On the list of attendees was the owner of a chain of pre-schools in China who also served in the lower body of the Chinese legislature.
Yang has maintained that she has no allegiance to the Chinese government. But Lee’s travel packages were explicitly intended to promote Chinese President Xi Jinping’s 2015 business diplomacy agenda. The initiative included pushing Chinese business owners to promote China’s Communist Party through their connections abroad, according to his website. The website was taken down after Lee spoke with a Herald reporter.
Lee, who sometimes calls himself Prince Charles, is the founder of United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which gives out “U.S.-China Ambassador” awards to clients who attend Trump events. Despite the name of the organization, no such group is listed as affiliated with the United Nations. On his website, Lee also claimed that two prominent Asian-American members of Congress, Reps. Grace Meng, D-N.Y., and Judy Chu, D-Cal., served as members of the group’s advisory board. Their staffs told the Miami Herald that was not true and said they would ask Lee to remove their names.
In a brief conversation with a reporter, Lee denied knowing Yang.
A cottage industry of influence peddling
Presidential tourism has historically involved the homes or estates of dead presidents. But living, breathing sightseeing — like what is on offer at Mar-a-Lago — seems to be a new phenomenon, said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor of political science and China expert at the University of Miami.
“This is the first time I’ve heard of sitting presidents and their homes being put on tour,” Teufel Dreyer said. “I think it’s definitely new for China. I don’t think this was done for Ronald Reagan or even somebody who was very nice to the Chinese like Barack Obama.”
Yang and Lee are not alone in their efforts to capitalize on their access to the Trump family. According to a Herald analysis of Chinese social media and classified advertisements, at least five other groups are marketing Trump-related tours to Chinese elites.
“This may be the highest-level invitation you’ll receive at this stage in your life,” one Chinese-language ad declared. Though most ads promoted events at Mar-a-Lago, a few marketed access through political fundraisers with Trump across the country.
Almost all groups promised photos with the president — though with official photos selling for $50,000, the lower priced tours seem to be betting on proximity and the chance to snap an informal selfie.
On the highest end, an online investment bank advertised $220,000 trips that included a stop to meet Trump. It promised travelers a refund if they did not get a photo with the president. The Trump events advertised by this group were political fundraisers for Trump’s re-election campaign, which would prohibit foreign nationals from paying for the photos.
The motivation for Chinese business people to seek photographs with American leaders comes down to self-promotion, said Teufel Dreyer. The photos are currency in future business transactions.
“They can take it back to China and use it to tell potential investors: ‘Look how well-connected I am. Don’t you want to put your money with me? I have friends in such high places.’ ”
Officials with the Chinese Communist Party also use photos with prominent people as a means of deterring threats to the party and reinforcing its strength, said Peter Mattis, a visiting fellow at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute. The photos can be used to imply an allegiance between the Chinese Communist Party and other world powers.
While most people who get within arms length of the president are subjected to a Secret Service background check and screening, Mar-a-Lago offers a unique level of intimate access to Trump — something foreign governments have likely noticed, national security experts say.
“The president of the United States is literally the world’s number-one intelligence target. If you can get close to him for a small fee, I’m sure our adversaries would like to take advantage of that,” said David Kris, an assistant attorney general for national security in the Obama administration and founder of the consulting firm Culper Partners.
Congressional Democrats have called for an investigation into Yang’s activities, including the possibility that she was acting as a conduit for foreign money into Trump’s re-election campaign.
With so much scrutiny on Yang, the access channel at Mar-a-Lago appears closed, at least temporarily. According to the Palm Beach Post, Yang was disinvited to a Lincoln Day dinner hosted by the Palm Beach County GOP after articles about her activities were published by the Herald and other news outlets. And this year’s Safari Night — originally slated for Saturday — has been canceled, said Terry Bomar, a pastor and friend of Trump Grau who runs the Young Adventurers charity behind the event.
That means a school in Kenya the nonprofit supports won’t be getting a new van or building this year.
“That’s who’s getting hurt,” Bomar said.
Miami Herald researcher Monika Leal and Miami Herald writers Selina Cheng and Keenan Chen contributed to this report.