Trump-Xi at Mar-a-Lago again? Critics raise security risk, Trump 'not concerned'
By GEORGE BENNETT | The Palm Beach Post | Published: April 13, 2019
PALM BEACH, Fla. (Tribune News Service) — If President Donald Trump can wrap up a trade agreement with China, he has floated the idea of signing the deal with Chinese President Xi Jinping at Mar-a-Lago, where the two leaders also met in 2017.
But the recent arrest of a Chinese woman who the Secret Service says carried malicious software on a thumb drive into Mar-a-Lago has revived questions about whether Trump's private club is suited for international summitry.
The Secret Service said Yujing Zhang was permitted to enter Mar-a-Lago from a security checkpoint across the street on March 30 after a manager at the club said she should be allowed access. Zhang was escorted onto the Mar-a-Lago grounds, but according to a criminal complaint was arrested after a receptionist determined she was not on an access list for the club.
When Zhang was detained, the Secret Service said it found four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive that, according to the complaint, "contained malicious malware." An indictment Friday charged Zhang with unlawful entry to a restricted area and lying to federal authorities, but did not include any charges related to espionage.
Trump was in town the weekend of the incident, but was playing golf at his nearby Trump International Golf Club when Zhang appeared at Mar-a-Lago.
The president later called the incident a "fluke situation" and said he's not worried about potential Chinese espionage.
"No, I'm not concerned at all," Trump told reporters last week. "I have – we have very good control. We have extremely good. And it's getting better. And cyber – frankly, what we're doing with cyber is a story in itself."
U.S. Rep. Ted Deutch, D-Fla., said the Zhang incident underscores his past criticisms of Trump for conducting public business at his private club.
"It's not a secure facility to begin with and when you have Mar-a-Lago management battling with the Secret Service, this is not a place that should host international summits," Deutch said. "Most importantly, the president of the United States needs to listen to the Secret Service and let them do their jobs to protect him and the country rather than deferring to the people that he employs at his club."
U.S. Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., a member of the House Intelligence Committee, said Trump "doesn't take seriously the real and grave threats to our security. The lax security at Mar-a-Lago seems to mirror the president's stance on national security in general: he just doesn't get it, and won't listen to anyone who does."
U.S. Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., agreed the Zhang incident is cause for concern. But Mast said he remains comfortable with Trump conducting presidential business at Mar-a-Lago.
"Anytime there's a breach, there should be a concern. When you're talking about, certainly, the president of the United States of America, there's a zero tolerance," said Mast, who said security is much tighter at Mar-a-Lago than it was when he visited before Trump took office.
Asked if had any worries about a Trump-Xi summit there, Mast said, "No. Not at all ... If that's the venue that they choose, it will be well-secured by our Secret Service."
It's unlikely that any government computer systems at Mar-a-Lago would be threatened by malware on a thumb drive, said Gregory Hall of the University of West Florida Center for Cybersecurity.
"The U.S. government, the State Department, the Department of Defense, all of those agencies have very rigorous protection standards on their networks," said Hall. "What would have been most likely put at risk – again, speculating – is physical access to computers for Mar-a-Lago as a resort, as a business."
Tight security seems to be at odds with the atmosphere Trump tries to create at Mar-a-Lago, said attorney Anne Weismann of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has sued the Trump administration to try to obtain access to visitor logs at the White House and Mar-a-Lago.
"A lot of people are paying a lot of money for membership dues and I think part of what they're getting and part of what the president, I think, is holding out as an inducement is the ability to have access. And the job of the Secret Service is to limit access to the president, to control that access, and I just don't think that is consistent with how the president wants to use Mar-a-Lago," Weismann said.
Trump tweeted in February that he was optimistic about trade talks with China and would like to ink a deal in Palm Beach.
"Assuming both sides make additional progress, we will be planning a Summit for President Xi and myself, at Mar-a-Lago, to conclude an agreement," Trump tweeted.
Negotiations appeared to hit snags afterward, but Trump told reporters at the White House last week that he remained optimistic and expected to know by early May whether an agreement can be reached.
"And I look forward to seeing President Xi. It will be here. And if we have a deal, then we're going to have a summit. If we don't have a deal, we're not going to have a summit. But there's a very good chance that we'll have the summit," Trump said.
Trump hosted Xi at Mar-a-Lago in April 2017. He hosted Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Mar-a-Lago in 2017 and 2018 and met with the heads of several Caribbean nations at Mar-a-Lago last month.
During Trump's first meeting with Abe in February 2017, Mar-a-Lago members and guests snapped pictures and made social media posts as the heads of state and their aides huddled in a terrace dining area at the club after North Korea test fired a nuclear missile.
Critics accused Trump of being lax with national security.
"There's no excuse for letting an international crisis play out in front of a bunch of country club members like dinner theater," tweeted Nancy Pelosi, who was House minority leader at the time.
The White House said at the time that no classified material was discussed in the dining area and that the president was briefed in a secure room.
(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)
Visit The Palm Beach Post at www.palmbeachpost.com
Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.