Chinese woman carrying computer malware arrested at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort

Mar-a-Lago arrest spotlights security risks at Trump estate

As palm trees swayed in the ocean breeze, Yujing Zhang approached Secret Service agents in the Mar-a-Lago parking lot.

She said she was going to the swimming pool at the Palm Beach presidential estate and presented agents with two Chinese passports in her name. That raised suspicions with her screeners, but a call to the front desk at Mar-a-Lago revealed a club member with a similar last name and with that, and a possible language barrier, reception waved her through.

Not long after, Zhang was arrested carrying four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive containing computer malware in an incident that is shining a spotlight on the unique difficulty of fortifying the oceanside Florida estate of President Donald Trump — who was staying at the club that weekend, but golfing elsewhere at the time.

The presidential refuge mixes Palm Beach society, world diplomacy and presidential doings in a way that creates significant security concerns. Hundreds of members frequent Mar-a-Lago and the president’s other private clubs, which function as working resorts even when Trump himself visits, creating a series of challenges that test the Secret Service.

READ MORE: Trump lashes out at Central America, Mexico on border

Democrats on Wednesday called for an investigation into security at Mar-a-Lago, and whether classified information stored there is at risk from hostile foreign governments. House Oversight Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings said he would get a briefing Thursday from the Secret Service.

“We want to make sure that the Secret Service is being the very best that they can be, and we want to find out more about exactly what kind of security they had down there in Florida,” Cummings said. “I think it’s very, very, very, very important that the president be protected. And I feel very strongly about that.”

With the Atlantic Ocean to the east and Florida’s Intracoastal Waterway to the west, Mar-a-Lago sits on the Palm Beach barrier island, a 128-room, 62,500-square foot symbol of opulence and power. Long a Trump favourite since he purchased it from the foundation of the late socialite Marjorie Merriweather Post in 1985, the president travels to the estate every few weekends during its winter high season, abandoning Washington’s chill for Florida sunshine.

“For the president, I think Mar-a-Lago is not so much a club, but his Xanadu,” said Chris Ruddy, publisher of Newsmax and a longtime club member and Trump friend. “My feeling is he also sees it as place of destiny and fate because Mrs. Post wanted it as the winter White House.”

While there, Trump has been known to crash weddings, pop in on charity events and, one time, order air strikes.

He has not been shy about conducting government business there. It was while hosting Chinese President Xi Jinping that Trump, over a chocolate cake dessert, authorized a missile launch at Syrian airfields after a chemical attack. On another occasion, he and Japanese Prime Minster Shinzo Abe sat on an outdoor patio, as guests dined nearby, and reviewed options for responding to a North Korean ballistic test.

Such interactions could make Mar-a-Lago a tempting target, and the government takes extraordinary steps to safeguard it. Federal agencies spent about $3.4 million per Trump visit, according to an analysis done by the U.S. Government Accountability Office of four 2017 trips.

The Secret Service doesn’t decide who is invited or welcome at the resort that responsibility belongs to the club. Agents do screen guests outside the perimeter before they’re screened again inside.

READ MORE: Meng Wanzhou extradition case raises ‘serious concerns,’ defence lawyer says

The agency said in a statement that, with the exception of certain facilities that are protected permanently, like 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.”

Nabil Erian, a former Marine and government counterintelligence officer, said guarding Mar-a-Lago is a “nightmare.” That’s because unlike previous presidential vacation homes like Ronald Reagan’s and George W. Bush’s ranches or George H.W. Bush’s seaside vacation home in Maine, Mar-a-Lago is open to members who pay $14,000 annual dues after a $100,000 or $200,000 initiation fee. They expect access to the facility and want to host their equally affluent guests — and they are used to getting their way.

“If this venue was uniquely for the president, it is easier to manage the perimeter,” said Erian, an executive at the security firm CTC International Group in West Palm Beach. “But given that they have members and residents and all that, it makes it much more difficult and it impacts the security plan dramatically. And frankly, it increases the risk of something like this happening.”

David Kris, an authority on foreign intelligence at Culper Partners consulting company in Seattle, said the president also bears responsibility for protecting classified information. He must follow the procedures set up by intelligence and law enforcement experts and know that it’s “not appropriate to have a classified discussion on an outdoor patio,” Kris said.

“Mar-a-Lago has not been sufficiently well-defended against not just physical attacks, but against counterintelligence exploits, including digital attacks,” he said.

But general club access doesn’t mean access to Trump or his guests. When Trump is at Mar-a-Lago, more screening and security measures are required.

“I really think it’s overblown. There is a lot of security and the staff is wonderful,” said Toni Holt Kramer, a nine-year member of the club and founder of the group “The Trumpettes.” “Mr. Trump wants us all to feel right at home there.”

On March 30, Zhang changed her story at the indoor reception desk, saying she was there a little early to take photos, but had come to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” between China and the U.S., which didn’t exist. Agents monitored her the entire time.

She was taken off the property to a nearby Secret Service office, where she changed her story again, saying her Chinese friend “Charles” told her to travel from Shanghai, China, to Palm Beach to attend the event and speak with a member of the president’s family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations, according to a criminal complaint.

Zhang was charged with making false statements to federal agents and illegally entering a restricted area. She remains in custody pending a hearing next week. Her public defender, Robert Adler, declined comment.

There is no mention in court papers of Li Yang, a Republican donor who was recently reported to have been promising Chinese business leaders that her consulting firm could get them access to Mar-a-Lago, where they could mingle with the president. Yang’s attorney said she did not know Zhang.

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Just Posted

Groups benefit from Vernon pee wee hockey tourney

Coca Cola Classic directors donate $1,000 each to Greater Vernon KidSport and Cops For Kids

Vernon pair medal at national taekwon-do finals

Brianna Li and Jack Sharkey combine to win five medals, including three gold

Okanagan College Vernon hosting trades session

Information on the trades program at OC will be available Thursday, Nov. 21, at 5 p.m.

Vernon Winter Carnival tickets on sale Dec. 6

Carnival Remembers the 60s will feature events old and new in February 2020

Rockies rally to stop North Okanagan Knights

Home team ties game late, wins 4-3 in overtime

Teen with cancer whose viral video urged Canadians to vote has died, uncle tweets

Maddison Yetman had been looking forward to voting in her first federal election since junior high school

Rowing Canada, UVic investigate celebrated coach for harassment, abuse

Lily Copeland says she felt intimidated and trapped by Williams

Cleanup in the works after tanker truck fire leads to oil spill in B.C.’s Peace region

The province said the majority of the spilled oil likely burned away in the fire.

BC VIEWS: Action needed on healthcare workplace violence

While we’ve been talking about it, the number of B.C. victims has only grown

Closing arguments begin in B.C. case launched in 2009 over private health care

Dr. Day said he illegally opened the Cambie Surgery Centre in 1996 in order to create more operating-room time

MacLean says “Coach’s Corner is no more” following Cherry’s dismissal from Hockey Night

Cherry had singled out new immigrants in for not honouring Canada’s veterans and fallen soldiers

MacKinnon powers Avs to 5-4 OT win over Canucks

Vancouver battled back late to pick up single point

Dallas Smith, Terri Clark to perform on CP Holiday Train’s B.C. stops

Annual festive food bank fundraiser rolling across province from Dec. 11 to 17

Poole’s Land finale: Tofino’s legendary ‘hippie commune’ being dismantled

Series of land-use fines inspire owner Michael Poole to sell the roughly 20-acre property.

Most Read