Chinese woman arrested at Trump resort with malware on thumb drive

A Chinese woman who got through security checkpoints at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida carrying a thumb drive coded with "malicious" software was arrested on Saturday.
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump returning from a weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
US President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump returning from a weekend at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.PHOTO: AFP
US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, March 22, 2019.
US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach, Florida, March 22, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS
US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.
US President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON (AFP, NYTIMES, BLOOMBERG) - A Chinese woman carrying multiple mobile phones and thumb drives bearing malware was arrested last Saturday at Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida while the President was staying there, court documents revealed on Tuesday (April 2).

Zhang Yujing was arrested and charged with making false statements to federal officers and knowingly entering a restricted building – which Mar-a-Lago becomes while Mr Trump is in residence. 

She appeared before US Magistrate Judge William Matthewman on Monday, according to the court’s electronic docket. He scheduled a bail hearing for next Monday and her arraignment for one week later. She remains in federal custody. 

US press accounts said she had "Chinese passports" but the court document stated they were for "Republic of China", the official name of Taiwan, as opposed to "People's Republic of China", the mainland.

Secret Service agents at the scene inspected her and found four mobile phones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive that "contained malicious software", according to the document.

Passing signs informing her that she was entering a Secret Service-restricted area, Zhang told the first agent she met that she was headed to the Mar-a-Lago pool, presenting her passports as proof of identity, according to the affidavit submitted by Secret Service Special Agent Samuel Ivanovich.

Cleared through that checkpoint after a Mar-a-Lago employee said she might be related to a member with the same surname, Zhang was picked up by a golf-cart-driving valet whom she was unable to tell where she wanted to go.

The driver brought her to the main reception area, where Zhang said she had come for a United Nations Chinese-American Association event, even though none was scheduled.

The receptionist then let Mr Ivanovich know that the woman wasn’t authorised to be on site and she was arrested.

Zhang later told agents she had been told by a friend to go to Mar-a-Lago and talk to a member of Mr Trump’s family about US-Chinese economic relations, according to the agent. Mr Ivanovich said Zhang was conversant in English. 

“The Secret Service does not determine who is invited or welcome at Mar-a-Lago; this is the responsibility of the host entity,” the agency said in a statement on Tuesday night. “This access does not afford an individual proximity to the president or other Secret Service protectees.”

The statement, which did not mention Zhang by name, said that she was allowed onto the property “once Mar-a-Lago staff determined an individual was to be granted access”.

At the next screening checkpoint, the statement added, the reception staff “determined that the individual should not have been authorised access”, and she was arrested. 

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing didn’t immediately respond on Wednesday to a faxed request for comment.

Mr Trump owns the luxurious beachside club in the wealthy Atlantic coast city of Palm Beach, and travels there frequently on weekends to play golf and meet friends. 

He keeps a residence in a private area of the club, but was reportedly golfing at a nearby course around the time Zhang was there. 

Mr Don Mihalek, executive vice-president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association, which represents the Secret Service, said the episode showed how much the Secret Service relied on the security at Mar-a-Lago. 

He said the fact that Secret Service agents apparently relied on the determination by a Mar-a-Lago security agent that Zhang was related to a member of the club – simply because she shared the member’s last name – was problematic. 

“It’s a hard position for Secret Service to be in to potentially deny a million-dollar committee member,” Mr Mihalek said. “It puts Secret Service in a very difficult position because we don’t know who are members and who aren’t.”

“You’re depending on them to say this is an employee and this isn’t an employee. We work off a list of names,” he said.

“Our priority is, are you coming in with explosives or not.”

While Zhang’s story of attending an event that was not on the club schedule raised suspicions, the Miami Herald reported that there might have been substance to it.

Two events had been recently advertised at Mar-a-Lago for last Saturday by a local Chinese-American businesswoman, Ms Cindy Yang, on Chinese language social media, the Herald said.

Ms Yang is a Mar-a-Lago member who built and later sold a chain of massage parlors in Florida, which were recently raided by police over prostitution. In recent years, she has promoted herself as a path of access to the US President, his family, and other decision-makers. 

Ms Yang’s website featured pictures of her with Mr Trump and other members of his family and senior administration officials. 

The Herald also said that an event promoter who Ms Yang worked with was named Charles Lee.