Politics & Government

Mar-a-Lago intruder from China may get her wish — to fire attorneys, defend herself

A Chinese woman accused of trespassing at President Donald Trump’s private club in Palm Beach has refused to see a psychologist to evaluate her mental health, a prerequisite to a federal judge allowing her to fire her attorneys and represent herself at trial.

But her lawyers with the Federal Public Defender’s Office have taken the extraordinary step of declaring that Yujing Zhang “does not suffer from a mental disease or defect” — which would appear to open the door to her taking over her own criminal case. Notice of the development was filed Tuesday.

Last month, U.S. District Judge Roy Altman ordered that Zhang be evaluated by a psychologist after she told him she wanted to dismiss her defense attorneys; even then the defendant said she didn’t want to see a doctor. Altman called her wish to represent herself a “very bad decision.” He set another hearing on her competency and legal representation for next Tuesday in Fort Lauderdale federal court.

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Yujing Zhang

Attorney Kristy Militello said in the notice that she sent a psychologist to meet with Zhang on May 23, two days after she insisted on firing her defense team.

“Ms. Zhang politely declined to be evaluated by the private defense psychologist,” Militello wrote. “Since that time, counsel for Ms. Zhang has continued to investigate Ms. Zhang’s mental health status and gathered additional information from her family [in China] regarding their concerns.”

Militello said she also met with Zhang “at length and discussed her options” before the lawyer concluded the defendant was not suffering from a mental problem that “would render her incompetent to proceed or ineligible to represent herself.”

“To the contrary, Ms. Zhang has firmly and repeatedly articulated her desire to represent herself and defend against these charges,” Militello wrote in the notice.

Altman, a former federal prosecutor in Miami who was recently confirmed as a nominee of President Donald Trump to the bench, must now decide whether he can rely on the defense team’s evaluation of Zhang’s mental health before allowing her to defend herself. While all defendants have a legal right to counsel, it’s not unusual for some, like Zhang, to choose to defend themselves.

At the previous hearing on May 21, the bizarre back-and-forth came as a surprise at an otherwise routine status hearing for a case with national-security implications. Although the judge urged Zhang to rely on legal counsel — the Federal Public Defender’s Office wanted to stay on the case — she refused.

“I want to represent myself,” said Zhang, who has pleaded not guilty and remains in detention. She did not explain her reasoning.

After one of Zhang’s federal public defenders told Altman there were possible concerns about her mental health, the judge said he would not allow the defendant to waive her right to an attorney until she had been evaluated by a private psychologist recommended by the defense team. He said he would allow her to represent herself if she was deemed competent.

“I don’t want to see a doctor,” Zhang insisted.

Seemingly concerned by Zhang’s repeated refusal to speak with her attorneys, Altman also asked if she had been threatened, coerced or bribed into her decision to represent herself. She said no. But when asked about her reasons, she said there were many and that she could not discuss them — not even if the court and docket were sealed.

Zhang, 33, is charged with lying to a federal agent and entering restricted property, Trump’s club at Mar-a-Lago. She faces up to a year on the trespassing charge and up to five years for lying. A financial consultant from Shanghai, she was arrested in March after trying to enter the president’s club carrying several electronic devices.

A trial date for Zhang had been set for May 28. But Militello and assistant public defender Robert Adler asked for more time to prepare for trial before she set out to fire them. Now the issue of a trial date must also be resolved.

Zhang’s case has raised questions about lax security at Mar-a-Lago and the risks that may pose to the president’s safety and the security of classified information. In previous hearings, prosecutors have suggested that Zhang’s case could involve espionage, although she has not been charged with spying.

Court rendering of Yujing Zhang at her pretrial detention hearing Monday, April 8.

The lead federal prosecutor in the case, Rolando Garcia, has been joined by an additional prosecutor, Michael Sherwin, who works in the Miami U.S. Attorney’s Office counterterrorism section. Sherwin has previously handled a South Florida case that bore some of the hallmarks of a Chinese spying operation.

On March 30, Zhang entered Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach. She carried with her an electronic invitation for a “Safari Night” charity gala promoted on Chinese-language social media by Cindy Yang, the South Florida Asian-spa entrepreneur who ran a business that sold Chinese business executives entry to events frequented by Trump, his family and his advisers. The event, hosted by the president’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, had been canceled after the Herald broke the story of Yang’s access peddling. Zhang told a U.S. Secret Service agent she was there to attend the gala, although federal prosecutors said she knew it was no longer taking place. That led to the lying charge.

While prosecutors have seemed to temper initial allegations from the Secret Service that Zhang sought to bring a thumb drive containing malware into Mar-a-Lago, she remains a person of interest in an FBI counterintelligence probe into possible Chinese spying in South Florida. That investigation began last year. In addition to the electronics found on Zhang at her arrest, federal agents discovered more devices, including one used to detect hidden cameras, in her Palm Beach hotel room, as well as more than $8,000 in U.S. and Chinese currency.