Cagey Chinese spy or fawning Trump fan? Mar-a-Lago intruder’s trial may offer up clues

Yujing Zhang seemed painfully ordinary. At least that’s how most people remembered the 33-year-old Chinese businesswoman until her apparent fascination with President Donald Trump led her on an ill-advised foray onto the grounds of his private Mar-a-Lago club in South Florida — and straight into the starring role of an apparent true-life spy thriller broadcast on cable news.

When Secret Service agents arrested her at Mar-a-Lago March 30, Zhang claimed she had come to attend an event on U.S.-China business relations hosted by Ivanka Trump, sources familiar with the investigation told the Miami Herald. Zhang hungered to meet Ivanka Trump and seemed to believe she might even be able to chat about real estate with the president himself.

Few details have been reported about Zhang’s biography and why she came to South Florida ahead of her trial in federal court in Fort Lauderdale next week. The Miami Herald partnered with the South China Morning Post to piece together a profile of Zhang’s life and her travels by speaking with Zhang’s friends, family and people in the United States who have made contact with her. Many preferred not to be named.

Court rendering of Yujing Zhang at her pretrial detention hearing Monday, April 8, 2019.

Those who have met her tend to agree she was a stubborn striver who sought to attain a status far above her modest background. And she seems to have fixated on Donald Trump, who has been advertised to China’s growing business class as a plainspoken, self-made billionaire — and proof that it is possible for just about anyone with the right amount of Teflon to do or be anything.

Thanks to Trump’s popularity in China, inventive entrepreneurs there and in the United States have pioneered a little-known online industry selling Chinese and Chinese-American business people tickets to events at the president’s properties. In China, a photo with the right person — generally used to claim a personal relationship — can make or break a career.

Zhang seems to have so bought into China’s Trump mythology that she spent tens of thousands on travel packages to Trump-branded businesses. She had also recently been pitched on a paid opportunity to meet the Clintons, which she scoffed at, asking why she should want to meet a former president, according to the sources. She wasn’t interested in a seminar with the super-wealthy investor Warren Buffett either.

When she flew from Shanghai to the United States on March 28, she was determined to meet the Trumps.

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Yujing Zhang in a photo posted on her social media account in 2008.

Two days later at Mar-a-Lago, it all went horribly wrong. Ivanka Trump wasn’t even in Florida, nor did the first daughter ever plan a summit on Chinese-U.S. business relations as Zhang claimed. And Secret Service agents found a trove of electronics on Zhang, including a thumb device they believed was loaded with malware, though they later walked that back, calling it a possible “false positive.” A subsequent search of her Palm Beach hotel room uncovered a device meant to detect hidden cameras, and stacks of cash, nearly $8,000 in all.

The FBI and U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami immediately began investigating Zhang as a possible spy, folding her case into an ongoing investigation, opened late last year, into potential Chinese espionage at Mar-a-Lago and South Florida.

Zhang, who has spent the past five months in pretrial detention, has been charged by indictment with two federal crimes: trespassing on restricted property and lying to a federal agent. Next week, a jury will determine how at least that part of her story ends during a trial that begins Sept. 9.

Though she has not been charged under the Espionage Act, prosecutors have filed classified evidence in Zhang’s case, indicating the existence of an ongoing, parallel investigation into matters regarding national security that potentially involve her and others. The FBI’s counterintelligence squad is investigating whether the Chinese national was working as an agent of the Chinese government or had been in contact with officials in Beijing before her trip to Mar-a-Lago, according to sources familiar with the probe.

Prosecutors have suggested they could bring more charges against Zhang in the future.

Currently facing a maximum of six years in federal prison, Zhang’s best possible defense seems premised on presenting herself as a bumbling foreign tourist lost in an unfamiliar world. Experts on Chinese espionage say it’s an act they’ve seen before — and that playing the role of a misguided, Trump-obsessed businesswoman could be the perfect cover for a spy. Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties — where the president is known to loosely discuss national-security affairs — present perfect targets for foreign infiltration.

Robert Anderson, a 20-year FBI veteran who served as the assistant director of the FBI’s Counterintelligence Division, said that whatever her relationship with Beijing, the fact that Zhang was able to get into the president’s private club at all was a “significant intelligence gain for the Chinese.” Anderson said the Chinese security apparatus is known for using citizens to make dummy runs at targets of interest.

“The simple fact that she could get in, and get to where she got, is of tremendous intelligence value already,” said Anderson. “When the Chinese now insert trained and professional long-term intelligence assets, think how hard they would be to catch. Because those people are going to act much different than [Zhang].”

Watching the once-poised Zhang stumble into recent court appearances, her thin hands clutched together against her chest, she certainly seemed less a secret agent on a nefarious mission than a scared young woman engulfed by a political maelstrom she couldn’t possibly have predicted.

‘Shortcuts to Success’

Growing up in China, Zhang lived with her family in an old house in an ordinary neighborhood in the heart of Shanghai, one of the world’s largest cities. Her father made a modest living as a mechanic for a local taxi company. She was shy and enjoyed watching Grey’s Anatomy and Prison Break and dreaming of going to Europe, according to a social media account that has been dormant for years.

After graduating from Shanghai Finance and Economic University with a business degree in 2008, Zhang obtained a low-level position at AIG-Huatai, a joint venture between American International Group and China’s Huatai Securities, according to Chinese securities records.

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Yujing Zhang graduated from Shanghai Finance and Economic University with a business degree in 2008.

But after Zhang left the company (renamed Huatai-Pinebridge) in the early months of 2013, around the time her mother passed away, scant public information exists about her next steps. Still, she did show signs of ambition, said an ex-boyfriend, who said he dated Zhang briefly in 2013 and asked to be quoted only by his last name, Yao

“I think she just really wanted to succeed,” Yao said. “The more ordinary things are in your family, the more shortcuts you have to take to succeed.”

Watching her struggle to meet deadlines at work while she was crippled by a shoddy laptop and a tendency to procrastinate, Yao didn’t think Zhang was capable of achieving her lofty goals, he said.

By the time she showed up at Mar-a-Lago in 2019, however, Zhang seemed to have achieved a measure of success. She worked in Shanghai’s cosmopolitan financial world at a flashy, modern business — one registered in her father’s name. Representatives of the wealth management company advertised their ability to act as liaisons for Chinese clients around the globe — pitching everything from attending the Oscars to investment opportunities in education-focused tech startup companies, a connection Zhang may have made during a December 2017 trip to San Francisco.

Zhang kept thousands of dollars in expense accounts in the United States for dining with clients, drove a BMW and owned a home in Shanghai valued at $1.3 million, she told a judge at a court hearing. (The median home price in Shanghai, the world’s third-priciest real-estate market, is $872,555.)

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Federal public defenders for Yujing Zhang submitted this receipt for 135,000 yuan, or $20,100, to the court in April. Zhang paid the money to the private company Beijing Peaceful Friendship Enterprise Management Co., Ltd, which has been the payee for events promoted by bundler Charles Lee in the past.

The ambitious young woman expressed no interest in politics, according to two sources familiar with her correspondence. Rather, she seemed interested in the Trumps because of their real estate connections — and how a link with the powerful American family might boost her profile and business in China, and even, she hoped, make her millions.

In the past three years, Zhang made five trips to the United States and, on multiple occasions, visited Trump properties. In September 2018, Zhang signed into the public wifi of a Trump-branded property, according to sources familiar with Zhang’s travel. It is unclear where that property was, although the sources say she claims to have visited the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C.

In February, Zhang spent the equivalent of $20,000 U.S. on a travel package that included a ticket to an event at Mar-a-Lago at the end of March. The package also included tours of New York and Miami real estate, according to sources familiar with her travel plans.

Then, disaster: A day after Zhang’s 33rd birthday, and just two days before she was set to fly to the United States, the travel agent who sold her the ticket told Zhang the Mar-a-Lago event had been canceled.

Undeterred, Zhang persisted, traveling halfway around the world to try her luck at getting into Mar-a-Lago for a gala she’d been told wasn’t going to happen.

She was clearly “up to something nefarious,” a federal magistrate judge declared in April. But what that was has never been clear.

Intruder at the Winter White House

When Zhang approached Mar-a-Lago in a taxi just a bit after noon on March 30, 2019, the president was in town, which always means extra layers of security. And although Trump was out golfing at the moment Zhang showed up, members of his family were still at the club.

No one simply walks into Mar-a-Lago — ever — whether the president is there or not. But somehow Zhang made it inside — briefly.

She disembarked from her taxi at a Secret Service security checkpoint in a parking lot across the street from the club. She was sporting a gray dress, a purse packed with electronics and a litany of half-baked excuses for her presence.

She said she was there to use the pool, according to court testimony by Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich, an eager young agent overseeing security at Mar-a-Lago that day. The club’s pools are open only to family and friends of members who pay $200,000 to join the elite club in one of America’s richest towns.

But apparently flustered by a perceived language barrier, and under the impression she might be the daughter of a member, Mar-a-Lago security allowed Zhang to enter, Ivanovich said.

While the Secret Service manages security while Trump is in town, club staff manages the guest list and tells agents whether someone is permitted to enter the club.

A valet in a golf cart drove Zhang to a second and final checkpoint in front of the main entrance. There, she paused briefly before proceeding through a metal detector as Secret Service agents searched her bag, Ivanovich testified.

She was carrying four cellphones, a laptop, several SIM cards, an external hard drive and the thumb drive. Mar-a-Lago does not prohibit electronic devices and Zhang was granted passage through the Secret Service checkpoint.

Because it is a social club hosting people from all over in addition to President Donald Trump’s residence, Mar-a-Lago is vulnerable to intelligence gathering. LYNNE SLADKY Associated Press

“Our checkpoints are for items that are restricted from our secured sites, such as weapons, explosive biological hazards, not, you know, whether somebody brings in a certain amount of cellphones or laptops or hard drives,” Ivanovich testified.

Then someone intervened.

Not club security or a Secret Service agent, but a suspicious receptionist trained, as are all staff, to know the faces of club members and frequent guests and to politely stop people who might not belong. The receptionist didn’t recognize Zhang and intercepted the interloper in the main foyer.

The receptionist asked Zhang several times in English why she was there, according to the agent’s testimony. Zhang eventually told her she planned to attend an event that was being hosted that night. Zhang explained to the receptionist she had come early to take pictures and familiarize herself with the property, according to the agent’s testimony.

But the gala scheduled for that evening — a Safari Night hosted by Trump’s sister Elizabeth Trump Grau — had been canceled. Had Zhang told the club staff she didn’t realize that, they may have simply turned her away, chalking up her presence to a misunderstanding. But instead Zhang insisted she had bought a ticket for a “United Nations Friendship Event” and flashed an invite written in Chinese on her phone. She never acknowledged having been told the event was off, Ivanovich said.

The receptionist flagged Zhang to the Secret Service. Agents began to question her in the lobby and soon after moved her to a nearby building off the main property, and then to the Secret Service office in West Palm Beach.

Zhang repeated to the agents that she was at Mar-a-Lago for a U.S.-China business event hosted by Ivanka Trump, according to sources familiar with the interrogation.

No one believed her.

China’s Business Diplomacy

Unbeknownst to the agents interrogating her at the time, Zhang had in fact bought a ticket to a Mar-a-Lago event that evening. But she may not have known the event’s real name.

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Cindy Yang raised the $50,000 needed to have her photograph taken with President Trump. Facebook

The March 30 Safari Night event had not been billed on Chinese-language social media as what it was — a charity gala for a group run by a local pastor. Rather it had been advertised as a Chinese business summit, a place for people to gain access to the halls of American power. One of the event’s most prominent promoters was another successful Chinese-born entrepreneur, a South Floridian named Cindy Yang, who had parlayed her chain of Asian day spas into a minor role in South Florida GOP politics and a presence at Trump-branded clubs, including Mar-a-Lago.

The man who sold Zhang the ticket was a Yang associate named Charles Lee, a Chinese travel agent who bundles events sold by vendors like Yang.

Lee, who goes by “Dr. Lee” or “Prince Charles,” runs an online travel agency called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which purports to be sponsored by the United Nations, despite no official connection to the organization. The U.N. nomenclature may explain Zhang’s seemingly baffling explanation for coming to Mar-a-Lago, her purchase of a ticket for a “United Nations Chinese Friendship Event.” (She may also have confused Elizabeth Trump Grau, the Safari Night’s host, with Ivanka.)

Lee’s travel packages, promoted on more than a dozen websites written in Chinese and Russian, claimed to be part of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s business diplomacy initiative.

Interactive image link

Who has gained access to President Trump and Mar-a-Lago through Cindy Yang?

Sometimes the events Yang and Lee promoted were charity galas, other times they were fundraisers co-hosted by the Republican National Committee and Trump Victory, the president’s re-election campaign. Yang is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice regarding whether her political ticket sales violated federal laws that prohibit non-citizens without green cards from financing political campaigns.

Yang did not respond to reporters’ requests for comment. She has previously said she never violated any rules or laws. Reached briefly by a reporter, Lee said he never charged attendees, although documents and social media posts reviewed by the Herald show Lee would request thousands of dollars from attendees. And a receipt entered as evidence in Zhang’s defense shows she paid a company linked to him for her travel package.

Trapped and Alone

Zhang has spent the past five months bouncing between jails in South Florida, while federal investigators combed through every detail of her life.

A call log provided by the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office revealed that Zhang passed time dialing down a list of local bail bond agents despite having been denied bond on April 15.

“She was asking me what’s next. What happens next. As if she don’t know,” said bond agent Francine Adderley. Zhang also called other local numbers, including those of real estate agents. One who answered told reporters Zhang sounded “crazy” as she repeatedly asked him for financial help while trying to convince the man in broken English that he somehow knew her. He didn’t, he said.

At the same time, Zhang has rejected other attempts to help. She refused to speak with her public defenders, and eventually moved to fire them and represent herself in court — something permitted by the judge only after her mental health history was thoroughly examined. She had reasons for not wanting an attorney, Zhang told the judge at the time, but she refused to share them, glancing nervously around the court and at one point demanding to know the names of everyone there for “security” reasons.

The judge at the time asked Zhang if she had been pressured or threatened by anyone into the decision. She said no.

A man who answered Zhang’s father’s phone and said he was a friend of the family told reporters at the South China Morning Post that Zhang had fired her attorneys because she doesn’t want too much news media exposure, and her understanding was lawyers would normally speak to media about the case. He declined to answer more questions.

As the months dragged on, Zhang began to look increasingly lost. In her first court appearances, Zhang sat with a straight back, taking notes on a legal pad and asking questions in English, prompting a magistrate judge to comment on her intelligence. Lately, she’s sat in court slumped to one side, answering the judge’s questions in confusing non-sequiturs, translated from Chinese. Other times she simply stares straight ahead, smiling, shaking her head yes or no but refusing to answer out loud.

Judge Roy Altman, who is overseeing the Zhang case, seems to believe it is an act. He has repeatedly accused her of “playing games with the court.”

“I know full well that you understand what I am saying to you both in English and in Mandarin,” Altman said at her last court appearance in August after Zhang repeatedly defied his order that she answer a question out loud. Recently, federal prosecutors filed a new batch of classified evidence with the judge regarding the secretive national security investigation. That filing raises the possibility that they know things about Zhang the rest of us don’t, such as her travels, her finances and her contacts. Her case may not be an isolated incident. In February, a Chinese student was sentenced to one year in prison for taking photos of the Naval Air Station in Key West.

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Yujing Zhang

But for every red flag of espionage in Zhang’s case, there may also be an innocent explanation.

The hidden-camera detector found in her hotel room isn’t so odd for a lone female traveler from China, where it’s not uncommon for voyeurs to hide cameras in hotels. Carrying four cellphones is more likely an indicator of a wannabe social-media influencer than a spy. The malware could have been a false positive, as the feds later suggested.

And the obsessive desire to reach Trump and his family with little thought of potential consequences could be just what it sounds like — the stubborn fixation of a troubled young woman struggling to find her way.

That doesn’t mean she wasn’t a threat, said Anderson, the former FBI agent. “This woman may or may not have even known that what she was doing was actually being monitored or manipulated by the Chinese government,” he said.

“There are witting assets, and then there are unwitting assets.”

Read the South China Morning Post story here.

This profile was reported through a partnership between the Miami Herald and the South China Morning Post. The Herald’s Sarah Blaskey, Nicholas Nehamas, and Jay Weaver reported from Miami. The Post’s Owen Churchill and Meng Jing reported from Washington, D.C., and Daniel Ren reported from Shanghai, China. Selina Cheng and Keenan Chen contributed reporting.
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Sarah Blaskey is an investigative and data reporter at the Miami Herald. She holds a master’s degree from the Columbia University School of Journalism and is a recent recipient of a Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting grant for her work on shark fishing and human trafficking in Central America.
Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter at the Miami Herald, where he was part of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team that broke the Panama Papers in 2016. He and his Herald colleagues were also named Pulitzer finalists in 2019 for the series “Dirty Gold, Clean Cash.” He joined the Herald in 2014.
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