Feds pursue potential national security case against Mar-a-Lago intruder
By JAY WEAVER AND SARAH BLASKEY | Miami Herald | Published: June 12, 2019
MIAMI (Tribune News Service) — For the first time, federal prosecutors have disclosed they are developing a potential national security case against Yujing Zhang, the 33-year-old Chinese woman charged with unlawfully entering Mar-a-Lago with a stash of electronic equipment.
They asked a federal judge to allow them to file “classified information” under seal without the public — or the defendant — seeing it. If the motion is granted, prosecutors will present the evidence directly to the federal judge in Zhang’s trespassing case during a private, closed meeting in the judge’s chambers.
The prosecution’s motion indicates that she is a focus of a widening U.S. probe of possible Chinese espionage and suggests that authorities have evidence she was likely not simply a “bumbling tourist” who accidentally found her way into President Donald Trump’s private estate in Palm Beach.
The motion by a counterintelligence prosecutor with the U.S. attorney’s office suggests that authorities have relevant classified evidence that could pose a risk to national security should anyone — including Zhang — ever see it.
Zhang’s case is part of a broader federal investigation into possible Chinese spying at Mar-a-Lago that the Miami Herald revealed is also focused on Republican donor Li “Cindy” Yang, who sold access to the president and his family on Chinese social media. Yang is also under investigation by the Justice Department for bundling contributions from Chinese nationals to Trump’s re-election campaign, despite a ban on such foreign contributions.
On Tuesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin asked U.S. District Judge Roy Altman to allow the government to seal the sensitive evidence in the Zhang case under Section 4 of the Classified Information Procedures Act. The law, designed to protect matters and methods of national security, allows the government to present evidence directly to the judge without disclosing it to the defendant or public.
According to Section 4, “The court, upon a sufficient showing, may authorize the United States to delete specified items of classified information from documents to be made available to the defendant through discovery.”
According to Harvard Law’s Harry Graver writing for Lawfare blog, the Classified Information Procedures Act “establishes a number of key procedures that facilitate a balance between the fundamental rights of defendants in criminal trials and the government’s interests in keeping classified information out of the wrong hands.”
Steven Aftergood, director for the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, who has written about CIPA provision, said the nature of the classified evidence in the Zhang case is likely one of two things. “Logically, it’s either about the facility (Mar-a-Lago) and its security or its about her and what the government knows about her and how,” Aftergood told the Herald.
In the latter case, Aftergood said the government could have information about things like Zhang’s travel or her interactions with other parties that may be classified if it was gathered as part of a federal investigation.
However, he said it’s too soon to assume the government has implicated Zhang in espionage based on this new filing. “All we can say that we know for sure is that the case implicates classified information,” Aftergood said.
Zhang, who was arrested attempting to enter Mar-a-Lago with a trove of electronics on March 30, was charged by indictment with two federal crimes: unlawful entry and lying to a federal agent. Although no charges have been brought under the Espionage Act, prosecutors for the U.S. attorney’s office have always hinted that the case involved matters of national security.
At a hearing on Tuesday, Zhang — against the judge’s recommendation — was allowed to fire her defense attorneys and represent herself at trial after her lawyers with the federal public defender’s office said she was mentally competent to do so. Zhang’s trial has tentatively been set for mid-August. Zhang has no formal training in United States law.
March 30 was not the first time Zhang had come to the United States to visit a Trump-branded property. As the Herald previously reported, Zhang had traveled to the United States on two previous occasions — July 2016 and January 2017 — both times staying at a Trump hotel in New York City. Then in March she flew to South Florida via Newark International Airport to visit Mar-a-Lago.
Secret Service agents say when Zhang was questioned she first indicated she had come to the club to use the pool. At a second check point she changed her story, saying she was there to attend an event. She was arrested when a receptionist checked the registry and no such event existed.
Zhang’s former appointed public defenders, later fired, presented evidence that Zhang had paid to attend a fundraiser gala originally planned for March 30. The gala, intended to raise money for children in Africa, had been billed on Chinese social media by South Florida massage entrepreneur Cindy Yang as a chance to mingle with the American elite and members of Trump’s family. According to her former attorneys, Zhang had bought a ticket from Yang’s associate, Charles Lee, who on various occasions had bundled Mar-a-Lago event tickets promoted by Yang into “business diplomacy packages” targeting Chinese business people looking for opportunities overseas.
According to evidence later presented in court, Lee had informed Zhang prior to her departure from China that the March 30 event had been canceled. Zhang had even asked for her money back.
Trump and his family were staying at Mar-a-Lago for the weekend when Zhang attempted to make entry on March 30. At the time of her arrest however, Trump was not at the club. He was playing golf at the nearby Trump International Golf Course in West Palm Beach.
Because she has discharged her attorneys and remains in custody, Zhang could not be reached for comment. The federal public defenders office told the Herald it does not comment on pending cases.
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