Woman arrested at Mar-a-Lago to remain jailed, was 'up to something nefarious,' judge says
By LORI ROZSA AND MARK BERMAN | The Washington Post | Published: April 15, 2019
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A Chinese woman must remain jailed following charges she lied to authorities after entering President Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort, a judge ruled Monday, saying he deemed her a flight risk.
U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman appeared swayed by federal prosecutors' argument that Yujing Zhang — who made her way through Mar-a-Lago's security last month carrying multiple electronics, authorities said — had ulterior motives in accessing the president's club.
It seemed that "Ms. Zhang was up to something nefarious," Matthewman said during a hearing here.
Zhang, 33, is charged with entering restricted grounds and making a false statement to the Secret Service, according to an indictment filed Friday. On Monday, she entered a plea of not guilty and asked for a jury trial. According to the penalty sheet filed with the indictment, she could face up to six years in prison and more than $250,000 in fines if convicted on the two counts.
Her ability to enter Mar-a-Lago and subsequent arrest heightened questions about security at the resort frequented by the president, where members — who are also his paying customers — and guests can be in the same room as the commander in chief. Intelligence officials have suggested that foreign spies who never see Trump could still find value in a room filled with his aides and associates.
Additional charges in the case are "possible," Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia told Matthewman on Monday.
Garcia also amended a statement authorities made previously in the case. While officials have said that Zhang was arrested carrying a thumb drive with malicious software, he said Monday that appeared to be a "false positive."
At a hearing last week, Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich had testified that when agents inserted the thumb drive into a computer, "a file immediately began to install itself." But on Monday, Garcia said officials could not replicate the malware problem on a second computer.
Garcia said that Zhang got "within arm's length" of computers at Mar-a-Lago, which Matthewman said he found "concerning." The judge also said that the electronics Zhang had on her were "especially troubling."
Prosecutors have suggested that Zhang was deceptive and, during her hearing last week, said she could flee if released. They reiterated that Monday, and Matthewman said he believed she might go to China if allowed out on bond.
Zhang faces no charges of espionage in the high-profile case, and Garcia said during her hearing last week that there were no allegations she was "a spy or this is espionage."
Before deciding that she should remain behind bars, Matthewman said: "I have not and shall not consider any political or other irrelevant issues swirling around this case."
The indictment filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Florida similarly makes no mention of any espionage elements, noting only that Zhang "knowingly" entered restricted grounds. It goes on to state that she told a Secret Service agent "she was there to attend a 'United Nations Friendship Event,' when in truth and in fact, and as the defendant then and there well knew, no such event was scheduled."
Zhang's defense attorney, Robert Adler, declined to comment about the indictment.
Adler had said Zhang paid a businessman to get into the resort. Kristy Militello, an assistant public defender representing Zhang, reiterated that explanation Monday.
In the detention order Matthewman signed Monday, he wrote that while Zhang had said she was trying to attend an event, her communications on a messaging app showed that she was told the event had been canceled "before she ever attempted to gain access to Mar-a-Lago." Zhang's attorneys said they had not seen those messages as of Monday.
Her attorneys unsuccessfully asked the court for bond and said her father was trying to get to the United States from China.
The incident at Mar-a-Lago brought renewed attention to questions about security protocols at the club, where Trump once huddled with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe about a national security issue — a ballistic missile test by North Korea — at a table on the terrace, in full view of the resort's guests.
The Secret Service had said in a statement it "does not determine who is invited or welcome at Mar-a-Lago," pointing to the club's management as responsible for granting access. The agency said proximity to the president occurs only with "additional screening and security measures," adding that its practices at Mar-a-Lago were similar to how it operated "at any other site temporarily visited by the president or other Secret Service protectees."
Trump has described the breach as a "fluke" and said he was "very happy" with the Secret Service's protection.
The criminal complaint laid out a strange narrative that preceded Zhang's arrest. According to the complaint, Zhang made her way through a Mar-a-Lago security checkpoint by showing Chinese passports and saying she was there to go to the swimming pool. When Mar-a-Lago security could not find her on their access list, the club's employees thought she was related to a member with the same last name and let her onto the property.
Zhang told a receptionist she was there for "a United Nations Chinese American Association event" that evening, but the receptionist determined there was no such event and contacted the Secret Service, an affidavit filed with the complaint said. The affidavit, signed by a Secret Service special agent, says Zhang said she was there for that event, had come early to take photos and, as the interview continued, "became verbally aggressive with agents."
They found the electronic devices while she was detained, the agent wrote.
Berman reported from Washington.