Yujing Zhang, 32, was arrested March 30 by Secret Service after she bypassed layers of security and got as far as the reception area of the club, which stays open for its members and their guests when the president is there. The incident has amplified concerns that the Florida resort where Trump and his advisers spend so much time is difficult to secure.
On Monday, Trump administration officials announced that Secret Service Director Randolph D. “Tex” Alles would be removed from that position, though a Department of Homeland Security official insisted the move was part of a broader shake-up at the agency and not tied to the Mar-a-Lago arrest.
When Zhang was arrested, she was carrying a thumb drive with malicious software on it, four phones, a laptop and a separate hard drive, authorities said. A subsequent search of her hotel room turned up more that alarmed investigators: nine thumb drives, five SIM cards for cellphones, about $8,000 in cash, several credit and debit cards, and a device used to detect hidden cameras, officials said.
At Monday’s detention hearing to determine whether she should be released on bond, prosecutors argued that Zhang was a flight risk and therefore should remain in custody. Her defense lawyer, Robert Adler, asked for more time to gather family and financial support for a release on bond. U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman ordered Zhang to remain in jail until a hearing next Monday.
Zhang is charged with lying to Secret Service agents and entering restricted space, and prosecutors described her in harsh, blunt terms, saying a formal indictment could be filed later this week.
“She lies to everyone she encounters,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia. “The present charges have no allegation that she’s a spy or this is espionage, or whatever. . . . There are a whole lot of questions that remain to be answered. But at this point in time, that’s not part of our allegation.”
Adler countered with a different, possibly exculpatory revelation — he said his client had paid businessman Charles Lee $20,000 to get into Mar-a-Lago.
That claim is significant because, before the incident, Lee had come under scrutiny as an event promoter who runs a group called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association. Zhang had claimed to authorities that she was at Mar-a-Lago to attend an event that day hosted by a group with a nearly identical name. Authorities have said there was no such event scheduled at the resort that day.
Lee could not immediately be reached for comment.
The Miami Herald has previously reported that Lee sold travel packages to Chinese customers that included tickets to Mar-a-Lago events. Some of the tickets were provided by Li “Cindy” Yang, a South Florida massage parlor entrepreneur who resold tickets to banquet events at Trump’s club, the Herald reported.
During Zhang’s interview following her arrest, she claimed her Chinese friend “Charles” told her to travel from Shanghai to Palm Beach, Fla., to attend this event and attempt to speak with a member of the president’s family about Chinese and American economic relations, according to the criminal complaint filed against her. At the time, she offered no more information about him or his last name, officials said.
As part of Monday’s hearing, Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich testified about his questioning of Zhang and acknowledged a major misstep in the investigation’s early hours. The agent said he documented about four hours of questioning on video, but when investigators played it back, they realized audio of the conversation had not recorded.
Ivanovich also testified that when the thumb drive they recovered from Zhang at the club was inserted into another agent’s computer, “a file immediately began to install itself.” The agent, Ivanovich said, had never seen that happen before.
“He knew it was something out of the ordinary,” Ivanovich said. “He had to immediately stop his analysis and shut down his computer in order to stop it.”
A law enforcement official said the computer was not part of a government data network, and no sensitive information was put at risk.
Tracing Zhang’s movements, authorities determined she entered the country legally on March 28, flying into Newark on a flight from Shanghai.
Two days later, Zhang approached a Mar-a-Lago checkpoint and told security officials she was there to go to the swimming pool, authorities said.
Initially, Mar-a-Lago employees seemed to think she might be a guest of one of the club’s members, whose last name also is Zhang. She was brought inside the resort to the reception desk, where further questioning by a receptionist revealed she was not allowed on the property, according to the court papers.