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Counterintelligence probe of Chinese activity focuses on Mar-a-Lago, Cindy Yang, intruder

Mar-a-Lago. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)
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Federal authorities are investigating possible Chinese intelligence operations targeting President Donald Trump and his private Palm Beach club, Mar-a-Lago, sources familiar with the never-before-reported investigation told the Miami Herald on Wednesday.

The federal counterintelligence probe was turbocharged Saturday when U.S. Secret Service agents arrested a Chinese woman, Yujing Zhang, after they said she tried to enter the club with a bevy of electronic devices, including a thumb drive infected with “malicious malware.”

The ongoing investigation has also recently focused on Li “Cindy” Yang, the sources told the Herald. Yang is a South Florida massage parlor entrepreneur who has promoted events at Mar-a-Lago with ads targeting Chinese business executives hoping to gain access to Trump and his family. The investigation began before the Herald revealed Yang’s business of selling access last month and focused on other people.

Before her arrest, Zhang was unknown to federal authorities. Now, investigators with the FBI-led Joint Terrorism Task Force in South Florida are trying to figure out who Zhang is and whether she is involved in a possible Chinese intelligence mission and whether there are links to Yang’s social events at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago.

Zhang was headed to a Mar-a-Lago event advertised on Chinese social media by Yang when she was arrested by federal authorities on charges of making a false statement to a federal officer and entering restricted property, according to a criminal complaint filed in federal court.

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She told conflicting stories about wanting to use the club’s pool, as well as hoping to discuss U.S.-China economic relations with a member of the president’s family, court records say.

Investigators are examining electronic equipment that was seized from Zhang on Saturday, including the thumb drive, a laptop, one external hard drive and four cellphones. They are attempting to determine what Zhang planned to do with the malware at Trump’s club and how that evidence might factor into their already existing investigation.

Zhang, whose birth year is listed as 1986 in court records, has not been charged with any crimes related to espionage. Her federal public defender did not immediately respond to requests for comment. Trump was golfing at another of his South Florida clubs during the incident.

But the arrest has alarmed congressional Democrats concerned about whether the president’s business interests could be manipulated by foreign adversaries.

On Wednesday, top Democrats in Washington called on the FBI and director of national intelligence to assess the risks posed by Mar-a-Lago’s policy of admitting members of the public and foreign nationals while the president and his family are using the facility.

“The apparent ease with which Ms. Zhang gained access to the facility during the president’s weekend visit raises concerns about the system for screening visitors, including the reliance on determinations made by Mar-a-Lago employees,” stated a letter from Senate Intelligence Committee ranking member Mark Warner, D-Va., Senate Judiciary Committee ranking member Dianne Feinstein, D-Cal., and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.

“As the White House Communications Agency and Secret Service continue to establish several secure areas at Mar-a-Lago for handling classified information when the president travels there, these potential vulnerabilities have serious national security implications,” the letter continued.

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The letter also asks for the FBI and DNI to coordinate with the Secret Service to determine the steps needed to “detect and deter adversary governments or their agents from attempting to gain access to or conduct electronic surveillance or acquire material at Mar-a-Lago or President Trump’s other properties.”

The Democrats also requested an immediate response to a previous letter, dated March 15, that called for a counterintelligence investigation into Yang’s connections to Chinese government officials and the risks her activities could pose to U.S. national security interests.

In a statement, a spokeswoman for Yang said: “Our client has stated that she does not know the woman who was arrested at Mar-a-Lago this weekend.”

She said Yang’s attorney, Evan Turk, was “not interested” in speaking with the Herald.

According to the court documents, Zhang traveled from Shanghai to South Florida to attend a “United Nations Chinese Friendship” event as a guest of a social media contact she identified only as “Charles.” Although authorities pointed out there was no event occurring by that exact name, Yang had previously been promoting two Mar-a-Lago events that day: An “International Leaders Elite Forum,” and a Safari Night gala, a fundraiser for a youth charity. The events were canceled after intense news coverage of Yang and her activities, something Zhang does not appear to have realized.

Yang pitched the combination of March 30 events as a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” for overseas Chinese clients to meet members of the Trump family and other top politicians in her Chinese-language ads targeting overseas buyers.

An associate of Yang named Charles Lee also pushed out the advertisements on Chinese social media.

Lee is the founder of the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, a for-profit Delaware-based company that is not listed by the United Nations as an affiliated organization. Instead, Lee uses the company to advertise Yang’s Mar-a-Lago invites to Chinese clients hoping to get close to Trump. The name of the company is almost identical to the event Zhang said she wished to attend.

The group’s website promoted the Chinese Communist Party, and promoted President Xi Jinping’s business diplomacy agenda — an effort to send Chinese business leaders abroad to befriend politicians in hopes of gaining favor for China and its agenda.

Since Yang first set foot in Mar-a-Lago in late 2017, she and Lee have brought more than two-dozen guests to various Mar-a-Lago events. Yang provided housing for one of Lee’s guests who attended a New Year’s Eve party on Dec. 31, 2018, according to a report by The New York Times. The guest, a Chinese actress named Sun Ye, took photos with two of the president’s sons, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump.

Lee could not be reached for comment and appears to have disconnected his phone and taken down the group’s website after being contacted by a Herald reporter last week. In a brief conversation at the time, Lee denied knowing Yang before hanging up.

Although Zhang may have been acting on her own, national security experts say her case illustrates why Mar-a-Lago — which is accessible to members, their friends and paying guests — presents a unique espionage risk.

“The surprise would be if Chinese and Russian and other adversarial governments were not trying to get into Mar-a-Lago and the president’s other properties,” said Peter Harrell, an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security and former Obama administration State Department official. “There’s a huge trove of information available.”

Although the Secret Service regularly sweeps the property for bugs, Harrell said Trump’s penchant for speaking off the cuff could make an enticing target.

“If you can get an eavesdropping device planted in there, you could have access to what he’s saying and what people are saying to him,” he said. “Maybe the Chinese government is testing the vulnerabilities and security procedures here.”

Michael Fuchs, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a former deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs in the Obama administration, said Zhang’s arrest demonstrates the security risks at Mar-a-Lago are real, not theoretical, even though the Chinese national does not seem to have penetrated far into the club.

“This does not strike me as a highly sophisticated attempt,” Fuchs said. “Nevertheless, it goes to show just how vulnerable Mar-a-Lago and the president’s business interests make him. And it raises a concerning question: How many others may have gotten in without getting caught?”

Since Trump became president, longtime Mar-a-Lago members have noted the increased presence of foreigners at charity events and galas — in particular, large contingents of Chinese people who spoke little English. “It’s a circus,” one longtime employee told the Herald on the condition of anonymity due to fear of repercussions at work. The employee said Chinese guests would bring gifts of cheap electronics, and constantly ask staff to help them get facetime with Trump or his family.

Trump was out golfing when Zhang was arrested after trying to enter Mar-a-Lago around noon on Saturday.

At an exterior checkpoint, Zhang provided two Chinese passports and told Secret Service personnel that she wanted to use the pool, though it was later discovered she there was no swimsuit in her bag. She was allowed to pass. Suspicions were raised after a receptionist found Zhang was not on Mar-a-Lago’s guest list for the weekend.

Mar-a-Lago club management — not Secret Service — determines who has access to the property, according to a statement released Tuesday by the U.S. Secret Service.

“This access does not afford an individual proximity to the president or other Secret Service protectees,” according to the complaint. “In such instances, additional screening and security measures are employed. With the exception of certain permanently protected facilities, such as the White House, the practice used at Mar-a-Lago is no different than that long used at any other site temporarily visited by the president or other Secret Service protectees.”

Zhang underwent the normal two-step security screening during which it was determined she was not an authorized guest, according to the statement.

She was arrested after allegedly becoming “verbally aggressive” with agents, according to court records.

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(Miami Herald writers Keenan Chen and Selina Cheng contributed to this report.)

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© 2019 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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