FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. >> If the first day is any indication, the trial of Yujing Zhang, the Chinese businesswoman accused of trespassing at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, will be a bizarre affair unlikely to answer the central question on the minds of many: Is Zhang a Chinese intelligence asset or a clumsy tourist who made the mistake of a lifetime?
In an opening statement this afternoon that lasted less than one minute, Zhang gave her side of the story, declaring in halting English: “Good afternoon, grand jury. What I want to say. … I don’t believe I did anything wrong. And thank you, USA.”
Zhang, 33, is representing herself during her trial at the Fort Lauderdale federal courthouse. She was coaxed into giving an opening statement by U.S. District Judge Roy Altman only after initially refusing to speak. Altman also had to send Zhang to change her outfit when she showed up for morning jury selection in her prison garb rather than civilian clothes.
The judge repeatedly encouraged Zhang to let the Federal Public Defender’s Office represent her, but she refused in an awkward series of exchanges in English and Mandarin, helped by a translator. She faces a maximum of six years in prison on charges of entering restricted property and lying to a federal agent stemming from her attempt to enter the president’s Palm Beach club on March 30. She is also being investigated as a potential spy in a classified national security investigation. Trump was staying at Mar-a-Lago that weekend but was out golfing during the incident.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin, one of two prosecutors, told the jury that Zhang had lied multiple times to Secret Service agents and Mar-a-Lago staff in order to gain entry for a charity event, even though she learned the gala had been canceled days earlier.
The prosecutor told the 12-person jury that Zhang gave a variety of misleading explanations to agents and staff before her arrest. Among them: that she had come to the president’s Palm Beach club to use the pool, that she had been invited to a United Nations Chinese-American Association event, and finally that she wished to engage in trade and economic negotiations with Trump and his daughter Ivanka.
“In no way was this defendant authorized to be there,” Sherwin said. “She lied multiple times.”
The prosecutor said that after Zhang’s arrest. federal agents discovered evidence on her iPhone 7 showing she had received text messages while she was still in China saying the Mar-a-Lago event on March 30 was canceled.
Zhang received the bad news in two “We Chat” messages on March 18 and March 26 from a person she had paid to make the arrangements for her, Sherwin said. Zhang was upset and texted back: “I want a refund.” Despite the cancellation, Zhang left for the United States two days later on March 28.
Prosecutors presented their case chronologically, including testimony by a cab driver who said he took a woman who looked like Zhang to the area around Mar-a-Lago on March 29, the day before her arrest.
Willy Isidore said he picked up the woman at the Colony Hotel in Palm Beach and she asked him to give her a ride to Mar-a-Lago.
“She said she didn’t have an invitation,” Isidore testified. “I told her, ‘If you don’t have an invitation, you can’t get in.’ “
Instead, he drove her to the neighborhood around Trump’s private club. He said the woman was talking on her cell phone and taking pictures the whole time.
When he brought her back to the Colony Hotel, Isidore said the woman asked for a receipt and he gave her his business card.
“She told me her name was Veronica,” Isidore testified.
But when asked if he could recognize the woman by Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia, Isidore flubbed the question.
“Maybe,” he said, sitting less than 10 feet away from Zhang in the courtroom. “I’m not sure.”
Zhang did not cross-examine Isidore, missing an opportunity to challenge his credibility.
When Zhang arrived by cab at Mar-a-Lago at around noon on March 30, she told Secret Service Agent Krystle Kerr at the first checkpoint near the Beach and Tennis Club that she was going to the pool. She provided her Chinese passport, according to Kerr’s testimony today.
Kerr said she checked Zhang’s name with Mar-a-Lago security staffers, who confirmed that the name Zhang was on a list of people approved to enter the club’s grounds. Her last name matched one on the list of members, although it would turn out to be another person with the same last name.
Mar-a-Lago staff said Zhang “was good to go,” Kerr testified. “She was on the list.”
Zhang was then taken by golf cart to a second and final security checkpoint near the entrance to Mar-a-Lago.
Secret Service Agent Paul Patenaude testified that the only thing he found suspicious about Zhang was her taking pictures or video of the property with her cell phone.
“The reason it was abnormal was because she was the only person all weekend who did that,” Patenaude said. Zhang was also carrying four cell phones, one laptop and one thumb drive.
After her arrest, federal agents found a bevy of electronics in her bag and more electronics and stacks of cash back at her room at the Colony. Her case was quickly folded into an ongoing federal investigation of potential Chinese espionage activities in South Florida. That counter-intelligence probe has also examined the conduct of Cindy Yang, a South Florida entrepreneur who promoted the event Zhang hoped to attend at Mar-a-Lago and has built a business by selling Chinese business people access to the president’s clubs and political fundraisers. In addition, an FBI public-corruption squad has opened an investigation into Yang’s activities.
While Zhang has not been charged with spying, federal prosecutors have filed evidence under seal directly to the judge under a provision of national-security law. That suggests they have information connecting Zhang to intelligence activities. Altman has written in court papers that the release of that evidence to the public “could cause serious damage to the national security of the United States.” None of it is expected to come out at the trial, expected to end Wednesday.
Today, prosecutors filed more documents under seal with Altman relating to the secret government investigation. It was the third government filing in the parallel spying probe. So far, Altman has accepted two batches of the government’s evidence under seal because of national-security concerns.
Zhang, who is standing trial on trespassing charges, is not allowed to see the evidence filed in the separate federal investigation.
Her sometimes erratic behavior in jail and the courtroom has led to questions about her mental health. She has generally refused to explain in open court why she wishes to represent herself, at one point demanding to know the names of everyone at an earlier hearing for “security” reasons. But the judge ruled she was competent to defend herself and she has at times asked sharp questions in court.
Last week, the Miami Herald and its reporting partner the South China Morning Post dug into Zhang’s background, finding she was an unexceptional student and businesswoman who grew up in an ordinary home in Shanghai. But she seemed to fixate on the Trump family — idolized by China’s business class — and saw forging a connection to them as a ticket to wealth and status. She spent tens of thousands of dollars on travel that brought her to Trump properties, including her ill-fated trip to Mar-a-Lago. Whether her interest in the Trumps was genuine — or the perfect cover for an intelligence offer, as some national-security experts have suggested — is not yet clear.
The very first argument of the day concerned Zhang’s outfit.
During morning jury selection, Zhang appeared in the courtroom wearing a brown inmate uniform.
Seeing the under-dressed defendant in court, Altman asked why Zhang wasn’t wearing her civilian clothes.
Zhang, speaking in Mandarin, told Altman that she didn’t have any “undergarments,” or underwear, such as a bra and panties, although in fact she had been provided with clothes she brought with her from China before her arrest.
The judge quickly dressed her down.
“You have no undergarments in your cell?” he asked.
“No,” said Zhang, who is being held in a Broward County jail facility while in federal custody.
“You should wear your civilian clothes so the jurors don’t see you in your prison garb,” Altman explained, cautioning that such a sight might prejudice jurors against her.
Zhang said she didn’t understand the judge’s English, and Altman told her to listen to her Mandarin interpreter or “we could be here for a year.”
Finally, Assistant Federal Public Defender Kristy Militello, who is still advising Zhang though she was fired before trial, intervened. Militello told the judge that Zhang had the appropriate undergarments along with a silk blouse and skirt and could change into them.
In that case, the judge said, Zhang should switch outfits.
About 15 minutes later, Zhang returned in a gold-colored silk blouse and khaki slacks.
The judge told her that he was going to introduce her to prospective jurors. She said she didn’t want to be introduced because she thought the trial was canceled.
“You are obviously unprepared to proceed,” Altman said, then “strongly recommended” that Zhang go to trial with the public defender by her side.
Altman asked her one last time if she wanted Militello to represent her.
“I don’t think so,” she told Altman.
While President Donald Trump is not standing trial, is not a witness and is not directly involved in any way in Zhang’s trial, he was certainly on the minds of some jury candidates.
A few said they don’t like him or his politics.
Altman asked them if their attitudes toward the president would affect their ability to fairly evaluate evidence against Zhang.
“Aside from my feelings about Trump, I will be fair,” one woman told the judge.
“And your feelings about him?” asked Altman, who was appointed as a federal judge by Trump and joined the bench this year.
“Negative,” the woman said.
As Altman then proceeded to explain jury selection rules to Zhang, the judge said she would be better served if she allowed the assistant public defender, Militello, help her with jury selection.
Zhang took the judge up on his recommendation.
“She has much (more) experience than me,” Zhang said in English, “so that would be helpful.”