Did the Secret Service Catch a Chinese Spy in Mar-a-Lago?

Yujing Zhang, left, listens to a hearing, before U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman in West Palm Beach, Florida. Illustration: Daniel Pontet/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Last month at President Trump’s Palm Beach golf resort, a Chinese woman breezed past layers of security, and told a receptionist that she was there for a “United Nations Friendship event” that did not exist. When authorities arrested Yujing Zhang on March 30, they discovered she was carrying four separate phones, one laptop, and a thumb drive. When a Secret Service agent plugged the suspicious Chinese national’s thumb drive into his personal computer (as one apparently does), it immediately started installing files.

Which is how we learned that Zhang entered Mar-a-Lago with malware in tow.

These are just a few of the revelations from Zhang’s appearance in federal court Monday. At a detention hearing arranged to determine whether Zhang should be released pending bond, prosecutors argued that she should be kept in jail while their investigation proceeds — even as they conceded that there is “no allegation that she is involved in any espionage.”

At present, the only charges the government has against Zhang are lying to a federal officer and trespassing on restricted property. But then, if the state did not have darker suspicions, it surely would not be imploring a judge to deny Zhang the opportunity to post bond. And prosecutors have good reason for such suspicions: Beyond the items that Zhang had on her person when apprehended, she also had “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” stowed away in her hotel room.

That said, Zhang’s “Don’t mind me, I’m just headed to the United Nations Friendship summit out by the pool” line is less ludicrous of an alibi than it appeared to be on first glance. As the Miami Herald explains:

Zhang may have miscommunicated the name of the event she wished to attend: The Herald has reported that a Chinese national named Charles Lee runs a business promoting events at Mar-a-Lago under the auspices of a group called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association. Lee worked to advertise the events on Chinese-language social media with Li “Cindy” Yang, the South Florida massage-parlor owner who ran a separate business that promised Chinese clients photos and meetings with Trump.

Yang had promoted events scheduled for Mar-a-Lago on the day Zhang showed up, including a “Safari Night” charity gala. But the functions had been canceled after the Herald first reported on Yang’s access-selling business last month, including a selfie she took with Trump.

In court Monday, Zhang’s lawyer claimed that she had paid Charles Lee $20,000 to get into Mar-a-Lago. Zhang entered the United States legally on a tourist visa.

Nevertheless, why this “tourist” chose to travel with so many phones, a malware-filled thumb drive, and a device for detecting hidden cameras remains unexplained. And the Secret Service’s handling of the case hasn’t done much to illuminate matters: In addition to plugging Zhang’s drive into a (possibly networked) computer, the agents questioned the suspect on video for six hours — only to subsequently discover that they had not recorded any audio.

On Monday, the White House ousted Secret Service director Randolph D. Alles – but insisted that this move had nothing to do with events in Mar-a-Lago. According to the New York Times, Trump voiced displeasure with Alles’s physical appearance, and made a habit of “calling him Dumbo because of his ears.”

Meanwhile, all signs suggest the president will continue selling access to his White House to most any well-heeled individual — foreign or domestic — who’s willing to pay the $200,000 membership fee at his (poorly secured) winter White House.

Did the Secret Service Catch a Chinese Spy in Mar-a-Lago