FLORIDA — Federal prosecutors have filed charges against a woman carrying Chinese passports accused of illegally entering President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida.
Yujing Zhang claimed a friend had asked her to fly from Shanghai to the club to try to speak to a member of Trump’s family about economic relations between the US and China, according to the complaint.
Zhang gained access to the property last Saturday through an apparent miscommunication with members of Mar-a-Lago security.
Secret Service agents at the entrance were told she was there to “go to the pool” and admitted her after she produced two People’s Republic of China passports as identification and they believed she was related to a club member also named Zhang, the complaint said.
But staff quickly became suspicious when she didn’t know where she wanted to go inside the property. She told a receptionist she was there to attend a non-existent United Nations Friendship Event between China and the United States that evening.
The nonexistent event was due to take place in the evening but Zhang said she had arrived to “familiarize herself with the property and take pictures.”
After agents were alerted to Zhang’s presence, she produced what she claimed was an invitation to the event, the complaint says. But “agents were unable to read it as it was in Chinese.”
Trump was staying at Mar-a-Lago on that date, though he was not on the property at the time of Zhang’s alleged visit.
After she was detained, US Secret Service agents searched multiple electronic devices including four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external “hard drive type” device and a thumb drive.
A preliminary investigation found malicious malware on the thumb drive, prosecutors say.
Late Tuesday, US Attorney’s office spokeswoman Sarah Schall said the two passports Zhang was carrying were from the People’s Republic of China. The complaint had indicated they were from the Republic of China, commonly known as Taiwan.
“Information presented to the court indicates that the defendant is from the People’s Republic of China, not Republic of China (Taiwan), and they were PRC passports,” Schall said in an email.
When asked about the incident Wednesday, Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Geng Shuang said he had “no information” on Zhang’s arrest.
Agents removed Zhang from the Mar-a-Lago property and interviewed her. According to prosecutors, Zhang “claimed her Chinese friend ‘Charles’ told her to travel from Shanghai, China, to Palm Beach, Florida, to attend this event and attempt to speak with a member of the President’s family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations.”
Agents tried to find out more about “Charles” but Zhang claimed she had contact with him only through WeChat, a messaging service that is popular in China.
Zhang behaved as though she didn’t understand much English when she entered the Mar-a-Lago grounds, the complaint says.
But during the interviews with agents, the complaint states, she “exhibited a detailed knowledge of, and ability to converse in and understand even subtle nuances of, the English language.”
“For example, as agents were attempting to obtain written consent for examination of electronic devices found in her possession, Zhang read the entire form in English out loud to agents,” it says.
Prosecutors in the Southern District of Florida charged her Monday with one count of making a false statement to a federal officer and one count of entering restricted property.
Zhang made a brief initial appearance in Florida federal court Monday where she was advised of the charges against her and the possible penalties she faced. She is due back in court for a detention hearing on April 8.
In a statement late Tuesday, the US Secret Service said Mar-a-Lago club management is responsible for deciding who is allowed access to the property, noting that “this access does not afford an individual proximity to the President or other Secret Service protectees.”
“While the Secret Service does not determine who is permitted to enter the club, our agents and officers conduct physical screenings to ensure no prohibited items are allowed onto the property,” the statement said.
It added that “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.”