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Trial of Chinese woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago gets off to a rocky start

Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach is a private club owned by President Donald Trump. Three Senate Democrats are pressing the U.S. Secret Service on whether security has been beefed up at Trump's Florida and New Jersey resorts after a 33-year-old Chinese woman talked her way into Mar-a-Lago. (Charles Trainor Jr./Miami Herald/TNS)

If jury selection for the Chinese businesswoman accused of trespassing at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club is any indication, the trial of Yujing Zhang will be a bizarre affair that may not answer the central question on the public’s mind: Is Zhang a Chinese intelligence asset or a clumsy tourist who made the mistake of a lifetime?

The first argument of the day concerned Zhang’s outfit.

On Monday morning, Zhang appeared in a courtroom at the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse in a brown inmate uniform. She is representing herself despite a judge’s plea that she accept attorneys from the Federal Public Defender’s Office, and is facing a maximum of six years in prison on charges of entering restricted property and lying to a federal agent.

Seeing the under-dressed defendant in court, U.S. District Judge Roy Altman asked Zhang why she wasn’t wearing her civilian clothes.

Zhang, speaking in Mandarin, told Altman that she didn’t have any “undergarments,” or underwear, such as a bra and panties, although in fact she had been provided with clothes she brought with her from China before her arrest.

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The judge quickly dressed her down.

“You have no undergarments in your cell?” he asked.

“No,” said Zhang, who is being held in a Broward County jail facility while in federal custody.

“You should wear your civilian clothes so the jurors don’t see you in your prison garb,” Altman explained, cautioning that such a sight might prejudice jurors against her.

Zhang said she didn’t understand the judge’s English, and Altman told her to listen to her Mandarin interpreter or “we could be here for a year.”

Finally, Assistant Federal Public Defender Kristy Militello, who is still advising Zhang though she was fired before trial, intervened. Militello told the judge that Zhang had the appropriate undergarments along with a silk blouse and skirt and could change into them.

In that case, the judge said, Zhang should change out of her prison garb.

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About 15 minutes later, Zhang returned in a gold-colored silk blouse and khaki slacks.

The judge told her that he was going to introduce her to prospective jurors. She said she didn’t want to be introduced because she thought the trial was canceled.

“You are obviously unprepared to proceed,” Altman said, then “strongly recommended” that Zhang go to trial with the public defender by her side.

Altman asked her one last time if she wanted Militello to represent her.

“I don’t think so,” she told Altman.

And with that, the jury candidates were brought into the courtroom. The two sides must pick 12 of them plus a few alternates for trial.

Zhang, 33, was arrested March 30 at Mar-a-Lago after showing up for a charity event she knew had been canceled and saying she wanted to use the pool. She made it into the president’s private club before being recognized as a possible interloper. Federal agents found a bevy of electronics and stacks of cash in her bag and back at her hotel room, and her case was quickly folded into an ongoing federal investigation of potential Chinese espionage activities in South Florida.

While she has not been charged with spying, federal prosecutors have filed evidence under seal directly to the judge under a provision of national security law. That suggests they have information connecting Zhang to intelligence activities. Altman has written in court papers that the release of that evidence to the public “could cause serious damage to the national security of the United States.” None of it is expected to come out at a trial likely to end Wednesday.

On Monday, prosecutors filed more documents under seal with Altman relating to the secret government investigation. It was the third government filing in the parallel probe. So far, Altman has accepted two batches of the government’s evidence under seal because of national-security concerns.

Zhang, who is standing trial on trespassing charges, is not allowed to see the evidence filed in the separate federal investigation.

Her sometimes erratic behavior in jail and the courtroom has led to questions about her mental health. She has generally refused to explain in open court why she wishes to represent herself, at one point demanding to know the names of everyone at an earlier hearing for “security” reasons. But the judge ruled she was competent to defend herself and she has at times asked sharp questions in court.

Last week, the Miami Herald and its reporting partner the South China Morning Post dug into Zhang’s background, finding she was an unexceptional student and businesswoman who grew up in an ordinary home in Shanghai. But she seemed to fixate on the Trump family — idolized by China’s business class — and saw forging a connection to them as a ticket to wealth and status. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel that brought her to Trump properties, including her ill-fated trip to Mar-a-Lago. Whether her interest in the Trumps was genuine — or the perfect cover for an intelligence offer, as some national-security experts have suggested — is not yet clear.

When jury selection began after Zhang’s wardrobe change, Altman advised the pool of prospective jurors that it’s the government’s burden to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that she lied to a federal agent and trespassed at Mar-a-Lago.

The judge said Zhang can remain silent throughout the trial, as is her constitutional right, that she doesn’t have to testify, call her own witnesses or question government witnesses.

“She doesn’t have to do anything,” Altman said. “It’s entirely the government’s burden.”

Altman also asked if any potential jurors knew about Zhang’s case.

Five of about 60 jury candidates said they had read or seen news reports on TV and the Internet. But only one, a female high school teacher, said she had formed an opinion about Zhang’s alleged misconduct.

While Trump is not standing trial, is not a witness and is not directly involved in any way in Zhang’s trial, he’s certainly on the minds of some potential jurors.

A few said they don’t like him or his politics.

Altman asked them if their attitudes toward the president would affect their ability to fairly evaluate evidence against Zhang.

“Aside from my feelings about Trump, I will be fair,” one woman told the judge.

“And your feelings about him?” asked Altman, who was appointed as a federal judge by Trump and joined the bench this year.

“Negative,” the woman said.

As Altman then proceeded to explain jury selection rules to Zhang, the judge said she would be better served if she allowed the assistant public defender, Militello, help her with jury selection.

Zhang took the judge up on his recommendation.

“She has much (more) experience than me,” Zhang said in English, “so that would be helpful.”

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© 2019 Miami Herald

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.