President Donald Trump was out golfing on Saturday when an unauthorized Chinese woman talked her way past security checkpoints and made her way inside the President’s Mar-a-Lago estate.
Had Trump been there, Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman who was eventually arrested and found in possession of a thumb drive carrying “malicious malware,” would likely have been able to observe the President glad-handing with club members, guests and government officials. She might have even gotten close enough to take a picture of the President or ask him for a selfie, as so many visitors to Trump’s ritzy club have been able to do.
Though Trump has dubbed Mar-a-Lago the “Winter White House,” the security breach on Saturday highlighted the extent to which the President’s Florida estate falls short of the tight security protocols at the actual White House – or the retreats frequently used by past presidents.
“What’s really important to understand is that a lot of people refer to Mar-a-Lago as the ‘Winter White House.’ It’s not the White House,” said Jonathan Wackrow, a former Secret Service agent and CNN law enforcement analyst. “It’s not a government facility. It’s a private commercial entity just like any other place the President goes on a temporary basis.”
The Secret Service erects a tight security cordon around the property when the President is in town, shutting down a public road that runs along the property and screening all people and vehicles looking to gain access to the property.
But the Mar-a-Lago Club still remains just that: a club, one that now gives members, their guests and individuals attending events hosted on the property the opportunity to mill about the club even when the commander in chief is on the property. Trump’s private quarters are off limits to guests, but they are just feet away from generally accessible areas of the property.
The Secret Service was quick to highlight that Mar-a-Lago staff – and not the Secret Service – determine which guests are allowed onto the property. That leaves the Secret Service somewhat at the mercy of Mar-a-Lago staff and the private groups that host events at the club, a Secret Service official told CNN. The Secret Service then screens those guests for any weapons or prohibited items.
“Access remains an issue,” a Secret Service official said. “It continues to be an issue.”
Unlike at the White House, Camp David or the private properties various presidents have spent time at away from Washington, the semi-public nature of Mar-a-Lago has afforded guests close proximity to the President and sometimes, even, the opportunity to watch history unfold.
When North Korea conducted a ballistic missile test in early 2017, Mar-a-Lago club members and their guests watched in awe as Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe – who were dining on the club’s outdoor patio – conferred with aides about how to respond. Aides turned on cell phone flashlights to help the leaders see the documents strewn on the table in front of them, raising security concerns.
One club member, Richard DeAgazio, quickly posted pictures of it all on Facebook: “HOLY MOLY !!! It was fascinating to watch the flurry of activity at dinner when the news came that Norht Korea had launched a missile in the direction of Japan.”
“Wow…..the center of the action!!!” he posted.
The open-air dinner was one of many Trump has enjoyed on his Mar-a-Lago patio, where he frequently dines with his family and advisers when he is staying there.
It’s there that guests attending a local Republican Party fundraiser spotted the President just hours after then-Attorney General William Barr announced that special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation had concluded and that there would be no further indictments. Guests watched as White House aides prepared the response to the news near the Mar-a-Lago pool and then later as Trump conferred with one of his White House attorneys, Emmett Flood, before sitting down for dinner on the patio.
The semi-public setting has also proved to be a headache for White House aides. A $200,000 membership fee plus annual dues often affords members and their guests the opportunity to rub elbows with the President, sometimes calling his attention to certain issues or attempting to influence his policies – opportunities amplified by the President’s habit of widely polling as he contemplates major decisions.
It even once resulted in an impromptu interview with a New York Times reporter who was a guest of Chris Ruddy, a club member and longtime friend of the President’s. White House aides were not aware that the interview was taking place.
It’s that kind of freeflowing access that made Saturday’s security breach no surprise to Mar-a-Lago observers.
“I thought sooner or later something was going to happen. I’m just happy it’s benign,” said Laurence Leamer, author of “Mar-a-Lago: Inside the Gates of Power at Donald Trump’s Presidential Palace.” “It’s absurd to have this as a presidential retreat with thousands of people in and out. Secret Service is terrific, but how can they handle this?”
While Zhang did go through a metal detector and had her bag searched like all other guests who set foot on the property, once she arrived inside the club at the reception, she would have had access to much of the property.
“There’s not security you have to continually go through,” Leamer said. “Once you’re in, you’re in.”
It is an unprecedented situation in modern history for a President to use a club as a presidential retreat, CNN presidential historian Douglas Brinkley said.
Most other Presidents have either used government properties like Camp David or their own private properties – such as President George W. Bush’s Texas ranch – as escapes from Washington. Presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill and Springwood estates became served as social hubs during their presidencies, but the only guests on the property would have been invited by the President and first lady – unlike at Mar-a-Lago or Trump’s Bedminster golf club in New Jersey.
“The Roosevelts had crowd control because they knew every eyeball on the property, whereas at Mar-a-Lago … It’s easier to have a security breach at Mar-a-Lago,” Brinkley said.