FBI investigating Mar-a-Lago security breach, Trump ‘not concerned’
President Donald Trump on Wednesday dismissed a recent alleged breach of his Mar-a-Lago property, saying he was “not concerned” about the incident.
“No, I’m not concerned at all,” Trump said when asked about potential Chinese espionage at his Florida club.
Trump described an alleged breach of his club by a woman with Chinese passports and a flashdrive containing malware as a “fluke situation.”
“I think it’s just a fluke situation and I think the person sitting at the front desk did a very good job,” Trump said, saying he’s been briefed on the incident. He added that the receptionist “was able to see things that other people were not, but no, I think it’s just a fluke.”
Trump’s comments come as the FBI has begun investigating the recent Mar-a-Lago security breach incident for the possibility that it was an espionage effort, a US official told CNN. The investigation comes at the same time that a top House Democrat asked for a briefing on the security at Trump’s Florida retreat.
The official said the FBI is doing what it has to do in these circumstances, when there is a foreign national involved and there is a possibility of counterintelligence or cyber security issues.
The investigation is still being led by the US Secret Service.
Trump praised the work of the Secret Service, saying he “could not be happier” with their handling of the incident.
Federal prosecutors have unveiled charges against Yujing Zhang, a woman whom they accused of entering the President’s Mar-a-Lago club in Florida illegally in late March. The Justice Department said Zhang was carrying two Chinese passports, and prosecutors have charged her with making a false statement to a federal officer and entering restricted property.
The criminal complaint said after Zhang was detained, Secret Service agents found she had multiple electronic devices and a preliminary investigation found malware on a thumb drive.
Zhang appeared in a federal court in Florida on Monday for an initial appearance. In a hearing before Magistrate Judge William Matthewman in West Palm Beach, Zhang was read the charges against her and told that she could face up to six years in prison if convicted, according to audio of the hearing obtained by CNN.
A Mandarin translator communicated the judge’s messages to Zhang. At the beginning of the hearing, after Matthewman made a few announcements in English that were translated for Zhang, he asked her if she wanted to continue using the translator or if he should proceed in English.
“Yes please, translate,” Zhang said. “Thank you, so that it will be more clearly understanding Chinese than in English.”
In an affidavit filed by federal prosecutors in court this week, a Secret Service agent made multiple references to Zhang’s English-language ability.
Mar-a-Lago staff first gave Zhang access to the property on Saturday, in part, “due to a potential language barrier issue,” the Secret Service agent wrote.
In a later interview with authorities off of Mar-a-Lago property, Zhang “freely and without difficulty conversed … in the English language,” the agent wrote.
A federal prosecutor called Zhang “an extreme risk of flight” and said she had no ties to the US or Palm Beach area, according to audio of her court hearing Monday, obtained by CNN.
“She has no ties to the United States in general or to the Southern District of Florida in particular,” the prosecutor said at Zhang’s initial appearance Monday.
Earlier in the hearing, Zhang told a federal judge that she had been in the US with her family for only a short time.
“Me and my family hasn’t been in the United States for a long time so we’re not familiar with the laws and also with which attorneys are good,” she said through an interpreter.
Trump said Tuesday he’s waiting for more information about the incident.
“We’ll see what happened, where she’s (Zhang) from, who she is, but the result is they were able to get her and she’s now suffering the consequences of whatever it is she had in mind,” he said.
Security concerns and congressional scrutiny
The alleged breach underscored wide-ranging security concerns about the President’s Florida club, which has been scrutinized for not having the tight security protocols at the actual White House or the retreats frequently used by past presidents.
In a letter on Wednesday, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff requested a briefing on the Zhang arrest from the heads of the FBI, Secret Service and Office of the Director of National Intelligence.
Among other things, the California Democrat requested to know the status of the investigation and whether China has attempted to conduct “influence operations” at the club. Schiff asked further what steps the Trump Organization has taken to prevent “intelligence collection at the club” and how the “revenue raising goals of the private club” conflict with imperatives of protecting state secrets.
The letter followed a previous request from Schiff and other top Democrats asking for a new FBI investigation into a Florida woman’s apparent ties to Trump, focusing on whether Cindy Yang illegally sought to leverage her relationship with the President by selling access to Chinese clients.
An investor and ‘very intelligent’ defendant
Zhang told a federal judge Monday that she works as an investor and consultant for a Chinese company that she identified as the Shanghai Zhirong Asset Management Corporation. She said she had not earned any money in 2019, and that she was only paid by the company “per project.”
“I myself invest some and I’m also a consultant for a company,” Zhang said through an interpreter, according to an audio recording of the hearing obtained by CNN.
Zhang’s visit to the US leading up to her arrest this weekend was not isolated — she said Monday that she had a Wells Fargo bank account set up in the US because she was exploring business options here, and used money in it to cover expenses with clients and friends on previous trips.
“I opened the account because I was looking for a business partner here in the US but since there is some policy change, so things have changed, there’s not much money there actually,” she said. “I always make sure that the account has enough money for me, for my expenses here, for example if I need to go out with clients or friends for dinner, and also I need to have enough money for my living expenses.”
Zhang also said she had another bank account in China, and that she owned a BMW and a house.
The overview of Zhang’s finances came as the judge questioned her ability to pay for an attorney, versus receiving a court-appointed one. Matthewman assigned Zhang a federal defender Monday, but reserved the right to make her pay for the service at a later date.
In a discussion on whether Zhang should receive a court appointed attorney, Matthewman called Zhang “very intelligent.” Earlier in the hearing, Matthewman had allowed Zhang three days to confer with her family and embassy about hiring an attorney, before he would consider appointing one for her.
“For the next three days, since I’m going to be in the detention center, I wonder how I am going to be able to find an attorney since I won’t be able to get access to phones and I won’t be able to contact my family or an attorney,” Zhang said, through an interpreter.
“Ms. Zhang, you’re obviously very intelligent because your questions are excellent from a defendant in this situation,” the judge responded.
Robert Adler, the federal public defender assigned to Zhang, said at a later session of the initial appearance on Monday that he had had a “very nice conversation” with her, and “received some information from her that hopefully will lead to a productive conversation with family interviews in China.”
While Zhang said earlier in the hearing that she had been in the US with her family for not a long time, she later said “my family is in China.” She added that “I do have a friend here” in the US, but she did not know his contact information and did not name him.
A federal prosecutor also said Monday that the Chinese consulate was made aware of Zhang’s arrest the same day that it happened.
“Her consulate was contacted the evening of her arrest so the People’s Republic of China is well aware of the fact that she has been arrested,” said Assistant US Attorney John C. McMillan.
The Chinese Embassy in DC has not responded to CNN’s request for comment.