‘Not a wandering tourist’: Guilty verdict for woman accused of trespass at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago

A Chinese businesswoman was found guilty Wednesday of trespassing at Mar-a-Lago and lying to a federal agent about why she was at President Donald Trump’s private Palm Beach club, capping a bizarre federal trial where the enigmatic defendant’s true purpose in coming to the resort was never answered.

Was Yujing Zhang, 33, just a bumbling tourist or an agent of Beijing’s government? One thing is certain: Zhang, who has been in federal custody since her arrest March 30, now faces up to one year in prison on the trespassing charge and five years on the false-statement offense. She showed no reaction to the verdict.

The 12-member jury deliberated for four-and-a-half hours after a two-day trial in which federal prosecutors accused Zhang of being so bent on entering the posh club to meet Trump that she lied to Secret Service agents and Mar-a-Lago staff, telling them she wanted to attend a gala event she knew had been canceled before she left China. The text messages on her iPhone 7 showed that Zhang not only had learned the Mar-a-Lago event was canceled, but also that she had asked the trip organizer for a refund, according to trial evidence.

“She said she was there for a United Nations friendship event. Well, that was a clear lie,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia told the jurors during closing arguments Tuesday. “She was bound and determined to get on that property. ... She lied to everybody to get on that property.”

Zhang, who did not put on a defense, did declare her innocence during closing arguments, saying she had a contract to attend a United Nations friendship event between the United States and China at the Mar-a-Lago club. “I do think I did nothing wrong,” said Zhang, speaking in English. “I did no lying.”

During the trial in Fort Lauderdale federal court, Zhang spoke occasionally in halting English and in Mandarin to raise an objection or ask U.S. District Judge Roy Altman a question about the government’s evidence. While it was apparent that Altman, a former federal prosecutor recently appointed by Trump to the federal bench, tried to give Zhang a fair trial, it seemed clear that Zhang’s decision to fire her assistant public defenders sealed her fate from the outset.

Before she was escorted out of the courtroom back to her jail cell, Zhang gave her former attorneys, Robert Adler and Kristy Militello, a weak smile. Both lawyers, at the request of the judge, provided behind-the-scenes advice during the trial.

Zhang’s trial began in unusual fashion Monday when she showed up in a jail uniform rather than the civilian clothes that had been provided to her. She complained about not having any “undergarments” to wear. Altman allowed her to change into khaki slacks and a blouse, and the trial got under way.

Zhang, who says she is a successful businesswoman from Shanghai, is also under scrutiny from a federal counterintelligence investigation, although she has not been charged with spying. The secret “national security” investigation — reflected in government evidence that has been filed under seal in Zhang’s trespassing case — never came up at trial. That probe, delving into possible Chinese espionage at Mar-a-Lago and elsewhere in South Florida, will continue even though the trespassing trial is finished and Zhang’s sentencing is set for Nov. 22.

Trial evidence showed that Zhang bluffed her way past two security checkpoints before she was allowed to enter Mar-a-Lago after 12 p.m. on March 30. Initially, she told Secret Service agents and club staff that she was going to the pool. Her last name — one of the most common in China — happened to match that of a member, so they let her in. That likely led jurors to debate whether she had in fact been allowed on the premises and had therefore not trespassed.

Zhang Yujing 2010.jpg
A photo of Yujing Zhang posted on her social media account in 2010.

But when Zhang walked into Mar-a-Lago’s ornate lobby in a long gray evening dress while shooting video with her cellphone, a sharp-eyed receptionist thought she looked suspicious. Zhang breezed past the receptionist, Ariela Grumaz, into a lounge area.

“As soon as she entered the lobby, you could see she was fascinated by the decorations and that’s when I realized she had never been here before,” Grumaz testified.

Federal prosecutors based their case on evidence that Zhang knew she had no reason to enter the president’s club and nonetheless lied her way in. Grumaz, the receptionist, proved a valuable witness.

That afternoon at Mar-a-Lago, Grumaz recalled in her testimony, she stopped the woman and asked for her name. She said Zhang was not on the list of members or guests at the president’s private club. Zhang showed the receptionist something on her cellphone indicating she was attending a United Nations friendship event between China and the United States that evening. But Grumaz said she checked with the catering manager and found there was no such event scheduled.

Zhang had in fact bought a ticket for a Safari Night charity gala originally on the calendar for that evening. But the event had been canceled a few days before, something Zhang was well aware of at the time, prosecutors argued.

Secret Service Agent Samuel Ivanovich said that he and other agents questioned Zhang in the Mar-a-Lago lobby before escorting her off the premises.

He said that when the agents began to search the electronic devices inside her purse, Zhang “became aggressive in nature.” But she agreed to go to the Secret Service’s West Palm Beach office for questioning, he said.

Ivanovich said Zhang explained during the interview that she made arrangements for her trip to Mar-a-Lago through a man named “Charles,” and that she also planned to visit other parts of the United States. She told him that she only knew Charles through their phone messaging on the “We Chat” social media app popular in China.

The agent said he pressed Zhang about why she initially told the Mar-a-Lago security staff that her reason for coming to the president’s private club was to go to the pool.

“She stated that she did not say that,” Ivanovich testified.

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

Federal agents later searched her iPhone 7 and discovered that Zhang had received text messages from a man named “Charles,” who told her that the March 30 event had been canceled days before she left China. But Zhang, who booked her own flight with $2,000 in cash, flew from Shanghai via Newark to Palm Beach on March 28 anyway, according to trial evidence.

After Zhang’s arrest, agents searched her hotel room and found a bevy of electronic devices, including a hidden-camera detector, along with $7,600 in U.S. currency and $600 in Chinese currency.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin said in court that Zhang’s demeanor throughout her brief visit to Mar-a-Lago suggested she was up to no good.

“It shows she was not a wandering tourist,” Sherwin said, “who fell into this situation by mistake.”

Trial evidence showed that Zhang was passionate about meeting President Trump and his family members, who were staying at Mar-a-Lago on the weekend of her brief visit. On the afternoon of March 30, however, Trump was playing golf off the premises.

Jay Weaver writes about bad guys who specialize in con jobs, rip-offs and squirreling away millions. Since joining the Miami Herald in 1999, he’s covered the federal courts nonstop, from Elian’s custody battle to A-Rod’s steroid abuse. He was on the Herald team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news in 2001. He and three Herald colleagues were Pulitzer Prize finalists for explanatory reporting in 2019 for a series on gold smuggled from South America to Miami.
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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