The woman, Yujing Zhang, gave different stories of why she was at the Southern White House. Agents said they seized four cell phones, a laptop computer, and a thumb drive that had malware on it.
WEST PALM BEACH — A 32-year-old Chinese woman, who said she wanted to talk to President Trump’s family about economic relations between the United States and her home country, lied her way into Mar-a-Lago over the weekend before she was arrested, U.S. Secret Service agents said.
Yujing Zhang, who said she was sent by a fellow Chinese national named Charles, was charged with making false statements to a federal officer and entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds. She appeared in U.S. District Court on Monday and a public defender was appointed to represent her.
She is to return to court next week for a hearing to determine whether she will be released from custody. If convicted, she faces a maximum five-year prison sentence.
Agents said they seized four cell phones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive from Zhang. An examination of the thumb drive showed it contained malicious malware, agents said.
The strange incident occurred while Trump was enjoying a golfing weekend at the private club he has dubbed the Winter White House.
It comes as the Trump Administration is engaged in sensitive trade talks with China that center on when Trump will lift costly tariffs on Chinese goods, and in the wake of scrutiny over access to Mar-a-Lago by a Chinese-American who once owned a Jupiter day spa where New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others allegedly solicited prostitution.
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Stopped at a security checkpoint across from Mar-a-Lago at about noon Saturday, Zhang initially told agents that she wanted to use the pool at the club, agents wrote. She presented the agents with two passports from the Republic of China to confirm her identity, they said.
A manager at the club thought Zhang was related to a club member who shared the same last name and cleared her to come in. But when Zhang got to the reception desk, she changed her story, agents said.
Instead of visiting the pool, Zhang said she had come to the club to attend a United Nations Chinese American Association event. Knowing there was no such event planned, the receptionist summoned federal agents.
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Zhang insisted she had come to the club to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” between China and the United States, agents said. She explained she arrived early to familiarize herself with the grounds and to snap some pictures, agents said.
Recognizing that her story had changed several times, agents took Zhang into custody after they said she became “verbally aggressive.”
During an interview at the Secret Service office in West Palm Beach, Zhang said she had traveled from Shanghai, China to Palm Beach at the request of a Chinese man she identified only as “Charles,” agents said. Charles, who she said she only knew through text messages, told her to attend the friendship event at Mar-a-Lago.
Her goal, she told agents, was to try to speak to a member Trump’s family about Chinese-American economic relations. She showed agents an invitation she received to the event. Agents said they were unable to read it because it was written in Chinese.
While agents initially thought a language barrier might have led to confusion about why Zhang visited the club, they later said she had a firm grasp of English.
Agents said they have multiple officers at various checkpoints to assure unauthorized visitors can’t get into Mar-a-Lago. Club members and guests must pass through a gauntlet of metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs.
Questions about how outsiders get access to Mar-a-Lago and other Trump properties were raised when photos surfaced of Cindy Yang attending Trump’s Super Bowl watch party at Trump International Golf Club in February. The Chinese-American, who also attended events at Mar-a-Lago, once owned the Jupiter spa where Kraft allegedly solicited prostitution.
The Wellington woman, who donated more than $37,000 to pro-Trump political committees, peddled access to the president and other Republican figures on a Chinese-language website. Democrats have called for an investigation into Yang, who held positions in groups some experts say were fronts for the Chinese government.
Although eyebrows were raised about Yang’s visit to the club, a Palm Beach Post review of social media found hundreds of photos posted by various people to mark their visits to Mar-a-Lago. Members of royal families, Russian celebrities, hedge-fund managers, Fox News personalities and two Brits dubbed the "Bad Boys of Brexit" were among those who posted selfies of their visits.
Club members, friends of members and people who buy tickets to events can enter the club even when Trump is in residence. However, as Zhang found out, they have to get by the Secret Service.
Agents said Zhang only got in because she lied.
“Had Zhang not falsely portrayed herself as a club member seeking to visit the pool, and instead advised she was there to attend the non-existent ‘United Nations Friendship Event’ … her access would have (been) declined by U.S. Secret Service at the preliminary inspection point,” they wrote.
As an aside, they said her first story about wanting to use the pool was an obvious ruse. "No swimming apparel was found in Zhang's possession or on her person," agents wrote.
Staff writers John Pacenti, Christine Stapleton and Lulu Ramadan also contributed to this story.