The youthful Chinese woman at the Mar-a-Lago security tent looked in no way like a run of the mill individual from Donald Trump’s Palm Beach first class. She conveyed no swimming clothing yet clarified in broken English she was there to utilize the pool. The name she gave showed up no place in the rundown of club individuals. They let her in at any rate.UTC
The young Chinese lady at the Mar-a-Lago security tent looked nothing like a typical member of Donald Trump’s Palm Beach elite. She carried no swimming attire but explained in broken English she was there to use the pool. The name she gave appeared nowhere in the list of club members. They let her in anyway.
So began another peculiar chapter in an already lengthy catalogue of extraordinary and controversial misadventures that have engulfed the glitzy waterfront mansion that Trump likes to call his “winter White House”.
As the president ended the week insisting it was no big deal that Mar-a-Lago’s security had been breached by a possible spy from a hostile foreign power, and who was in possession of a bagful of technology, others were not so quick to dismiss it.
The FBI ramped up a counterintelligence investigation into suspected Chinese espionage efforts at Mar-a-Lago. Democrats on Capitol Hill demanded an immediate inquiry into the security holes that allowed 32-year-old Yujing Zhang to gain access.
“It seems like anybody can kind of mosey up and bring communications equipment,” said Elijah Cummings, chair of the House oversight committee.
Not only did Zhang appear to deceive several Secret Service agents and Mar-a-Lago staff, she was granted a chauffeur-driven ride across the manicured grounds to the gilded doors of the 1920s palace before a receptionist finally became suspicious. Trump was not at home but was only a few miles away, playing golf.
“This is amateur night at the Apollo Theater, except Mar-a-Lago looks a little better than the Apollo,” said Jose Lambiet, a Palm Beach society writer who describes the scene at Trump’s weekend retreat as “a circus”, for the casual and easy access members and guests seem to enjoy to the world’s most powerful man.
“There are so many wrong things that I don’t even know where to start.”
The first clues to the identity of the mystery woman, who was carrying two Chinese passports, four mobile phones, a laptop, a computer hard drive and a USB drive containing “malicious malware”, came in court on Monday, as she faced charges of making false statements to a federal officer and entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds.
Through an interpreter, Zhang said she was a freelance consultant for a private equity firm based in Shanghai, drove a BMW and owned a $1.3m (£1m) house in China. According to the Palm Beach Post, she said she was in the US looking to start an investment business.
But federal prosecutor John McMillan, citing unspecified “security implications”, warned that Zhang posed an “extreme risk of flight” and persuaded magistrate judge William Matthewman to hold her without access to the internet or international calls until a further hearing on Monday.
FBI agents’ first priority is to figure out why Zhang was at Mar-a-Lago and how she exploited its clearly porous security procedures. Specifically, they are examining any ties to Li “Cindy” Yang, a Chinese-American businesswoman, Republican fundraiser and former massage parlour owner who is reportedly at the centre of their espionage investigation.
Yang, 45, became embroiled in another Mar-a-Lago scandal last month when it was revealed she was the founder and former owner of a Florida day spa raided by police investigating a prostitution ring. Among those arrested was Trump’s friend Robert Kraft, owner of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, who has denied charges of soliciting prostitution.
Yang’s dubious activities in promoting Mar-a-Lago to Chinese businesses, revealed by the Miami Herald, and the associated promise of access to Trump or his inner circle, remain of more concern. During questioning following her arrest last Saturday, Zhang changed her story about wanting to use the pool, according to Secret Service special agent Samuel Ivanovich in the criminal complaint filed against her. She claimed instead she was there to attend a “friendship event” that night, organised by a Chinese business group and promoted by Yang on social media.
As it turned out, that event was cancelled shortly after a selfie of Yang with Trump emerged. But the claim raised investigators’ eyebrows, as did the fact Zhang was now speaking “freely and without difficulty” in English after appearing confused and unable to understand even basic questions at the security tent.
Adding further intrigue was Zhang’s assertion that a Chinese friend known only as “Charles” had sent her instructions on WeChat, a popular Asian messaging app, “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”.
As Ivanovich explained: “Agents were unable to obtain any information more specifically identifying Zhang’s purported contact.”
Intelligence experts say it would hardly be a surprise for a Chinese spy to try to infiltrate the Trump administration at Mar-a-Lago. The New York Times reported last year that the president displayed a “casual approach to electronic security” through his use of unsecured mobile phones, despite warnings his conversations were regularly eavesdropped by Russia and China. “Bad actors” attempting to access computer systems might find the job easier at Mar-a-Lago, where resort security and not the Secret Service has the ultimate say over who is and is not admitted.
“This is one of the most bizarre cases I’ve ever heard of, if in fact it relates to Chinese espionage,” said security consultant Nick Eftimiades, a retired Department of Defense senior intelligence officer with experience in technical operations.
“If so, and I stress if so, it illustrates the full-scale effort of professional espionage activities through state-owned enterprises and amateur ranks. It could very well be amateurs trying to collect info and then sell it back to the Chinese government.
“Malware in any computer allows access, if it’s done correctly, to the perpetrator. She can turn around and say, ‘Hey look, I have access into Trump’s computers at his site.’ The Chinese government encourages every crazy amateur to try and go play James Bond and collect information with the expectation and hope they’ll be able to sell it to a Chinese official or institution.
“China has plausible deniability, they say, ‘Look, we don’t know anything about this, this isn’t us’, but when people walk in the door they’re not kicking them out and saying, ‘No, you’re crazy, don’t do that sort of thing.’”
As the investigation headed into its second week, Trump and the Secret Service traded barbs.
“I think that the person sitting at the front desk did a very good job [and] was able to see things that other people were not,” Trump said, alluding to the Mar-a-Lago receptionist who raised the alarm after Zhang had passed a Secret Service screening.
Ivanovich stated that it was a Mar-a-Lago security officer who admitted Zhang after wrongly believing she might have been the daughter of a club member.
In a rare statement on Thursday, the agency made clear who it considered at fault.
“The Secret Service does not determine who is invited or welcome at Mar-a-Lago; this is the responsibility of the host entity,” it said. “The Mar-a-Lago club management determines which members and guests are granted access.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010