A hearing scheduled for Monday in South Florida may determine whether a Chinese woman will remain jailed following charges that she lied to a federal officer after entering Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s resort in Palm Beach.
Authorities said the woman, Yujing Zhang, made her way through the club’s security last month and was arrested carrying a thumb drive with malware — or malicious software — along with four cellphones, a laptop and an external hard drive. They also said her hotel room contained several additional thumb drives, SIM cards for cellphones, about $8,000 in cash and a device that can detect hidden cameras, among other things.
Zhang, 32, was indicted by a grand jury, charging her with the same two counts — entering restricted grounds and making a false statement to the Secret Service — she was previously facing, according to the indictment filed Friday.
Her ability to enter Mar-a-Lago and subsequent arrest heightened questions about security at the resort frequented by the president, where members — who are also his paying customers — and guests can be in the same room as the commander in chief. Intelligence officials have suggested that foreign spies who never see Trump could still find value in a room filled with his aides and associates.
At a hearing last week, prosecutors portrayed Zhang as a flight risk and called her deceptive.
Yujing Zhang is seen in a sketch made durig her hearing at the U.S. federal courthouse in West Palm Beach, Fla., on April 8. (Stringer/Reuters)
“She lies to everyone she encounters,” Rolando Garcia, an assistant U.S. attorney, said during that hearing. He said there were no allegations at that time that Zhang was “a spy or this is espionage.”
The indictment filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida similarly makes no mention of any espionage elements, noting only that she “knowingly” entered restricted grounds. It goes on to state that she told a Secret Service agent “she was there to attend a ‘United Nations Friendship Event,’ when in truth and in fact, and as the defendant then and there well knew, no such event was scheduled.”
According to the penalty sheet filed with the indictment, she could face up to six years in prison and more than $250,000 in fines if convicted on the two counts.
Zhang’s defense attorney, Robert Adler, said she had paid a businessman to get into the resort. Adler also asked for time to gather financial support for a release on bond. At the hearing last week, U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman ordered Zhang to stay in jail until the hearing scheduled for Monday.
Adler declined to comment about the indictment.
The incident at Mar-a-Lago brought renewed attention to questions about security protocols at the club, where Trump once huddled with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about a national security issue — a ballistic missile test by North Korea — at a table on the terrace, in full view of the resort’s guests.
A little more than a week after Zhang’s arrest, news broke that Randolph D. “Tex” Alles would step down as chief of the Secret Service, though officials said the move was unrelated to the Mar-a-Lago security breach.
In a statement to the Secret Service’s employees last week, Alles said he “was told weeks ago . . . that transitions in leadership should be expected across the Department of Homeland Security.” Alles’s removal came as Trump continued forcing out and reshaping leadership at DHS, which includes the Secret Service along with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Secret Service had said in a statement it “does not determine who is invited or welcome at Mar-a-Lago,” pointing to the club’s management as responsible for granting access. The agency said proximity to the president occurs only with “additional screening and security measures,” adding that its practices at Mar-a-Lago were similar to how it operated “at any other site temporarily visited by the president or other Secret Service protectees.”
Trump described the breach as a “fluke” and said he was “very happy” with the Secret Service’s protection.
The criminal complaint laid out a strange narrative that preceded Zhang’s arrest. According to the complaint, Zhang made her way through a Mar-a-Lago security checkpoint by showing Chinese passports and saying she was there to go to the swimming pool. When Mar-a-Lago security could not find her on their access list, the club’s employees thought she was related to a member with the same last name and let her onto the property.
Zhang told a receptionist she was there for “a United Nations Chinese American Association event” that evening, but the receptionist determined there was no such event and contacted the Secret Service, an affidavit filed with the complaint said. The affidavit, signed by a Secret Service special agent, says Zhang said she was there for that event, had come early to take photos and, as the interview continued, “became verbally aggressive with agents.”
While she was detained, they found the electronic devices, including the thumb drive with malware, the agent wrote. Despite her references to visiting the pool, the agent said, they found “no swimming apparel.” A hearing last week revealed the additional electronic equipment officials said they found in her hotel room.