Investigations

Mar-a-Lago intruder accused of ‘playing games with the court.’ Trial pushed to September

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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:


Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman arrested in March while trying to enter Mar-a-Lago with a trove of electronics, appeared Tuesday in federal court in Fort Lauderdale, where a judge accused her of being intentionally difficult when she refused to answer his questions out loud.

“The defendant has decided that she wants to play games with the court,” said U.S. District Judge Roy Altman. On several occasions Altman was forced to describe Zhang’s nods or smiles into the record when she refused to answer.

Zhang, 33, was indicted in April on charges of trespassing and lying to a federal agent, charges that carry maximum sentences of one and five years, respectively. She pleaded not guilty.

On Tuesday, U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia told the court that federal prosecutors were prepared to go to trial against Zhang next week. However, Zhang, who has been representing herself since firing her public defenders on June 11, did not realize she had to file certain documents, including jury instructions and an evidence list, by Tuesday’s deadline. As a result, Altman pushed back the trial date in order to give her time to file.

The trial is now scheduled for Sept. 3. Garcia predicted the trial could last up to four days.

There will be another hearing next week to consider whether Zhang wants to waive her right to a jury trial, a move suggested by the federal prosecutors. While non-jury trials are common in civil cases, it would be highly unusual in a criminal case.

“Maybe I don’t need that many people to make that decision. I don’t know,” Zhang said, but she suggested she was dizzy and not in the correct state of mind to make the decision until a future date.

If Zhang chooses to waive her right to a jury trial, her case would be decided by Altman.

Zhang was arrested by federal agents on March 30 at a security checkpoint at the entrance of Mar-a-Lago, President Donald Trump’s private South Florida club.

Although Zhang has not been charged under the Espionage Act, federal prosecutors have filed secret evidence — evidence considered “classified” under the Classified Information Procedures Act — indicating authorities have information pertaining to Zhang’s case that has significant national security implications.

Sources told the Miami Herald that Zhang is a new focus in a broader FBI counterintelligence probe that has been looking into possible Chinese espionage at Mar-a-Lago since late last year.

At the time of her arrest, Zhang was carrying an external hard drive, a laptop computer, several cellphones, and one thumb drive that federal agents initially said was infected with malware. (They later walked back the malware claim.) A search of Zhang’s hotel room revealed nearly $8,000 in U.S. and Chinese currency, and more electronics, including a secret-camera detector.

Zhang has been held without bond since a federal judge in Palm Beach County ruled Zhang to be an “extreme” flight risk.

“It does appear to the court that Ms. Zhang was up to something nefarious,” Magistrate Judge William Matthewman said in a decision on April 15.

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Yujing Zhang

According to federal agents who have testified in the case, Zhang initially told agents that she was there at Mar-a-Lago to use the pool but later switched her story when talking with the receptionist, telling her that she was at the club to attend a “United Nations Friendship” event, and flashing what she said was an invitation written in Chinese.

No event by that name existed. However, a charity fundraiser had been planned for that evening and promoted on Chinese social media platforms by South Florida massage entrepreneur Li “Cindy” Yang, who was bundling Mar-a-Lago event tickets for political and business tourism companies in China.

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Who has gained access to President Trump and Mar-a-Lago through Cindy Yang?

One of those businesses, run by Yang’s associate, Charles Lee, used the name “United Nations Friendship Association.” The United Nations has no record of affiliation with the group.

One of Zhang’s former public defenders, Kristy Militello, told the court in May that the defense had procured a receipt proving that Zhang had purchased a ticket to the Mar-a-Lago event through Lee as part of a $20,000 travel package, and suggested that she was not lying to the receptionist.

However, federal investigators say they have evidence that Zhang knew the event was canceled prior to departing from Shanghai, and had even asked for her money back.

The event was canceled after a Miami Herald article on March 8 revealed that Yang, the former owner of the Asian spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was accused of paying for sex, had been promoting the event as a chance for Chinese business people to gain access to the family of the U.S. president.

Yang is now tangled up in the federal counterintelligence investigation as well, according to sources familiar with the probe. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the possibility that Yang was funneling money into Trump’s reelection campaign via fundraiser events, which would be illegal under campaign finance laws preventing foreign money in elections.

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Sarah Blaskey is an investigative and data reporter at the Miami Herald. She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.
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