The trial of a Chinese woman accused of lying her way through a Secret Service checkpoint at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort earlier this year is set to begin Monday, bringing with it windows into sensitive security operations at the so-called Winter White House and ongoing Beijing espionage efforts.
Yujing Zhang, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Shanghai, has been in federal custody since a receptionist at the ritzy Palm Beach club first grew suspicious on a Saturday afternoon in March.
Zhang had told a first ring of security that she was there that afternoon to use the pool. To a second Secret Service agent minutes later, she showed an invitation in Chinese to a “United Nations Friendship Event.” In an interview at the Secret Service satellite office nearby, a third reason: she’d been sent by a Chinese friend, “Charles,” to attend the event and “attempt to speak with a member of the President’s family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations.”
Though Zhang has not been charged with espionage – she pleaded not guilty to counts of unlawfully entering a restricted building and making false statements – an air of intrigue has hung over the case for months.
Prosecutors have said they found thousands of dollars in cash in her hotel room, along with a device meant to detect hidden cameras, and have submitted two filings containing classified information sensitive enough that a federal judge prevented Zhang from seeing it herself.
A US official confirmed after her arrest that the FBI was investigating the incident as a possible spying effort, and officials in South Florida soon after connected her case to a larger federal probe of Chinese businesspeople in the area suspected of counterintelligence activity, a person familiar with the situation said.
Ahead of the trial, however, no accusations that Zhang was working for her government have emerged, and her appearances in court – bemused and bizarre, as she recently has acted as her own attorney — come off more hapless tourist than secret agent.
Friends and family of Zhang’s have described her to the Miami Herald as a mere opportunist who sought the status that comes along with access to the President and his family, and a defense attorney who previously represented Zhang had said in court that she was had gone to Mar-a-Lago that day to attend an event peddled by a Chinese businessman who promises access to influential Americans.
According to an exhibit list entered with the court Friday, the jury will see a contract Zhang signed with Beijing Peace Friendship Enterprise Mgmt. Co, a company that is reportedly connected to Charles Lee, the businessman and the friend she had mentioned to authorities after she was first detained.
Prosecutors have also walked back earlier allegations they made about Zhang’s potential malicious intent. While initial court documents said Zhang had carried a thumb drive that contained malware on it when she was arrested, an assistant US attorney said at a hearing in April that the result may have actually been the result of a “false positive.”
Whether or not Zhang herself is a spy, the marketing of access to Mar-a-Lago and the President by Lee and another Chinese businesswoman, Cindy Yang, has drawn alarm from top Democrats on Capitol Hill, who said Zhang’s alleged intrusion “raises very serious questions regarding security vulnerabilities at Mar-a-Lago.”
The counterintelligence probe in South Florida, which was first reported by the Herald, also includes scrutiny of Yang and the events at Mar-a-Lago, the person familiar with the situation said.
Yang has defended her efforts as merely networking opportunities and denied connections to the Chinese government.
While Zhang’s trial could shed more light on the events and the ways Lee has sold access to the President, it is not likely to veer into the wider counterintelligence allegations. No national security experts have been noticed to appear, and there’s no sign that prosecutors will bring into play the two pieces of classified evidence about Zhang that they submitted earlier this summer.
Instead, according to the exhibit list, it appears prosecutors will stick squarely to their trespassing case, using photos and surveillance video, as well as testimony from Secret Service agents and witnesses who interacted with her, to recreate Zhang’s movements that day in March, illuminating little seen aspects of the sprawling security apparatus that’s enveloped the resort since Trump became president.