This article is part of TPM Cafe, TPM’s home for opinion and news analysis. It is excerpted from “The Grifters Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency,” published by PublicAffairs.
Li Juan Yang had been waiting to throw a party at Mar-a-Lago all her life.
She just didn’t know it.
Yang grew up poor in the 1970s in Harbin, an epicenter of industry in frigid northeastern China known for its “Ice and Snow” festival. Now the nexus of Russian-Chinese trade, its name in the original Manchu suggests more humble roots: “a place for drying fishing nets.” Yang had never heard of Mar-a-Lago. But, a relentless striver blessed with an entrepreneurial streak, she never stopped dreaming. Yang always wanted the best from life. She worked hard. Climbed every ladder she could. Moved to the United States after college. And became a U.S. citizen.
On January 26, 2018, as she stood dressed in gold at the entrance to Mar-a-Lago’s Donald J. Trump Grand Ballroom, she must have felt like a queen.
The charity gala that evening was sponsored by Elizabeth Trump Grau, the president’s sister. But Yang was running the show. Her past had no place in the halls of old wealth. Most people called her “Cindy” now, a name she chose in homage to her favorite American supermodel, Cindy Crawford. Mar-a-Lago’s “Safari Night Ball” was her grand debut. As guests in leopard print, zebra stripes, and Indiana Jones hats streamed into the club, Yang directed each to their assigned seats. Among them were a Palm Beach car salesman, a California real estate agent, a member of a biker club, and a Russian fugitive who had fled to Miami and was now trying his hand at journalism.
Holding a flute of champagne, the exile turned to his assistant, who was recording him. “The most interesting thing,” he said to the camera, “is that we met a lot of people here who speak Russian.”
It certainly wasn’t the usual crowd for a midseason charity gala in Palm Beach. And Cindy wasn’t the usual kind of hostess. But sometimes stars align in the most unpredictable ways.
A march of white nationalists in Charlottesville, Virginia, the previous summer should never have thrown Palm Beach’s social calendar into utter disarray. While terrifying, it should have been immaterial that hundreds of neo-Nazis were marching through streets a thousand miles away carrying torches and shouting, “Jews will not replace us.” Even when a white supremacist drove a car into a cluster of counter-protestors, killing a young woman, it never seemed like the violence would change anything in this exclusive enclave of the country’s richest people.
Then Donald Trump went off script.
He was at a Trump Tower press conference in August 2017 talking about infrastructure. But no one remembers that because after his prepared remarks, Trump began to defend the Charlottesville marchers, who included white supremacists like Richard Spencer and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides,” Trump said. “You had people in that group that were there to protest the taking down of, to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of a park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
The neo-Nazis and Confederate sympathizers ended up handing Yang the opportunity of a lifetime.
Major charities whose annual galas were the lifeblood of Mar-a-Lago stopped holding events at the club. The image-conscious charities had no choice but to pull out — or risk looking indifferent to racism.
“If you have a conscience, you’re really condoning bad behavior by continuing to be there,” Laurel Baker, executive director of the Palm Beach Chamber of Commerce, told Town & Country. “Many say it’s the dollars [raised at the events] that count. Yes. But the integrity of any organization rests on their sound decisions and stewardship. Personally, I do not feel that supporting [Trump], directly or indirectly, speaks well of any organization.”
The American Red Cross ball? Canceled. The Cleveland Clinic’s fundraising gala? Moved to the Breakers. Also out were the American Cancer Society, the Palm Beach Habilitation Center, and the Salvation Army. All told, two-thirds of the major charities that had hosted events at Mar-a-Lago the previous year walked away.
Trump’s country clubs and hotels around the world took a 6 percent revenue hit from one year to the next. Some of the financial gains he’d seen since becoming president evaporated. Mar-a-Lago was one of the biggest losers. The club’s calendar emptied. But Palm Beach, just like nature, abhors a vacuum.
Yang was one of the first to fill it.
When Yang heard that a small charity needed help selling tickets to a 2018 “Safari Night” fundraising gala at Mar-a-Lago, she jumped into action.
The charity was run by Terry Bomar, a Palm Beach County pastor who had been friends with Elizabeth Trump Grau since 2003 when his family’s art gallery sold her some pieces. Though the charity had largely gone dormant in recent years, the president’s sister suggested Bomar hold an event at Mar-a-Lago. After Charlottesville, the calendar was looking pretty bare, after all. Trump Grau even agreed to cosponsor the party with her husband. It seemed a worthy cause: Young Adventurers mentored young people, helping their careers and sending them on trips abroad. It also sponsored a school in Kenya.
Bomar agreed to put on the ball. He didn’t like how people reacted to Trump’s comments on Charlottesville — “the media twists things,” he believes — and he thought the big charities were wrong to pull out. There was still a bright side.
“It opened an opportunity for little charities like us,” Bomar said. He couldn’t pull off the gala alone.
The pastor had met Cindy Yang through the Asian GOP. While he had a hard time understanding her English, he could tell one thing: the woman had ambition and drive. She wanted to buy a table, maybe more than one, which Bomar had priced at $5,000 apiece. She went all in with her support, saying she could even plan an exchange trip to China for the Young Adventurers’ kids, all expenses paid. She also asked Bomar if Trump would show up. But a lot of people had asked that question, and the pastor didn’t think anything of it.
Yang quickly became the driving force behind the event, using it to launch the Mar-a-Lago division of her Trump tourism business.
Taking to her social media network, Yang spread the word about Safari Night far and wide. A savvy saleswoman, she tweaked the description of the event to appeal more to her prospective clients. Young Adventurers became a footnote. With Yang as an impromptu impresario, Safari Night transformed into something far grander and more attractive to members of China’s business class: a chance to meet the president’s sister. On WeChat, China’s dominant social media platform, individual tickets were marked up from the standard $600 that Young Adventurers was asking to $1,000 from Yang and her associates. VIP packages that promised two nights at Mar-a-Lago were priced at $10,000.
Forty people RSVP’d to Yang’s invitation to the club. They weren’t there to support the charity. They were there for Trump. And they had paid good money to get in.
Among Yang’s Safari Night guests was Xianqin Qu, the leader of the Florida chapter of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, who had helped Yang organize a South Florida welcoming party for Xi’s 2017 visit to the club.
“I was very surprised by the number of Chinese Americans there,” said another guest, Xinyue “Daniel” Lou, a Chinese American businessman who traveled from New York City to attend Safari Night.
Lou had seen an advertisement on WeChat and thought the cost was reasonable. How often, after all, did one get the chance to party inside the home of a president? He immediately saw the value of Yang’s business.
“The reason Mar-a-Lago all the sudden became so impressive is that President Xi flew over and had a meeting with President Trump there,” he said. “That made it into an attractive destination. All the Chinese people want to take a trip there.”
Safari Night was a smash, raising $50,000 for Young Adventurers.
A Chinese dance troupe provided entertainment for the four hundred guests, while a local artist painted portraits of Albert Einstein and Melania Trump in real time as partygoers bid on the works. Models recruited by a woman who once ran a Russian mail-order-bride service glided between tables showing off their ball gowns, engaging in small talk, and handing out business cards. (One teenage model later said she felt like she was being sold, not the clothes.) Enthralled with the safari-chic theme, guests posed with cardboard cutouts of African wildlife. Trump Grau wore leopard print; Terry Bomar donned an Indiana Jones hat, showing off a cheetah-spotted vest under his tuxedo.
Yang spent the night networking.
“She speaks really horrible English, but she would talk to everybody,” said one member of South Florida’s Chinese American community. Yang didn’t dance. She didn’t drink. She was there doing what she had always done: “looking for rich people.”
Safari Night marked a new era at the elite club. While Mar-a-Lago had always flouted some of the conventions of polite society, the ladies of Palm Beach remained its principal aristocracy. But after Charlottesville, the doors opened to anyone who could pay. A new class moved in. Safari Night’s most successful promoter, massage-parlor queen Yang suddenly held the keys to Mar-a-Lago.
“She was the gatekeeper,” the person who knew her said. “It was prestigious.”
For Yang’s new business, the best part of Safari Night was how much Prince Charles enjoyed the party.
At Mar-a-Lago the prince wore a floral, dark red Mao jacket.
He wasn’t the heir to the British throne but rather a bald and stocky Chinese travel agent named Li Weitian, who often went by Charles Lee, or Dr. Charles, or sometimes “Prince” Charles.
Lee ran a group called the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which in reality had nothing to do with the United Nations. He also had no relationship with two prominent Chinese American politicians listed on his website as board members. (Staffers for Representatives Grace Meng and Judy Chu said their bosses had never heard of Lee or his group.)
What Lee really did was use the UN brand to package trips for Chinese business people who wanted to visit seats of power and meet important people in the United States and around the world.
The blistering rise of China as an economic power had created a new class of Chinese tourists with cash in their pockets and dual loyalties in their hearts — half capitalist-style entrepreneurs, half Chinese Party Communists. Their primary currency: photographs with the global elite, leveraged as proof of their status and influence. They used the photos to attract investors.
The Chinese government encourages this practice. Lee advertised his services as part of Xi Jinping’s “civilian diplomacy” program, although again there was no indication of any actual connection between Lee and the government.
He offered his clients the chance to receive awards and honorary ambassadorships, essentially pieces of paper with semi-official-sounding language and Lee’s signature. He once gave what the media dubbed a “hoax” UN peace prize to a member of Myanmar’s military junta.
Lee had once promoted trips to the United States centered around President Barack Obama, with stops in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. But Obama did not own an estate open to the public. There were far fewer opportunities to get close to him. Gaining access to Trump, however, was easy — especially after Lee connected with Cindy Yang.
At Yang’s invitation, Lee attended Safari Night to scout Mar-a-Lago as a destination for his clients. He called the club a “sacred place.”
“The first time I met Charles was Safari Night,” said a member of South Florida’s Chinese American community. “Cindy invited him. He said he would have his clients come, but he needed to know what it looks like.”
Lee liked what he saw.
On his website he raved about his experience: the club, its grandeur, the beautiful models, the thrill of taking a photo with the president’s sister. He was already pitching an upcoming Mar-a-Lago event to his clients as part of an eight-day travel package priced at $13,500 that included trips to Wall Street, Harvard, the United Nations, and West Point.
“I know he was advertising a lot of stuff. Some in China. Some in Japan. Some in England. Everywhere,” said Xiaoqi Wang, an organizer for the Asian GOP who attended Safari Night. “I thought, ‘This guy probably works with a lot of people.’”
Over the next year Lee would distribute Yang’s advertisements and recruit more than a dozen Chinese guests for at least four more Mar-a-Lago galas Yang promoted. The offer was always the same: buy tickets to the event and get a chance to rub shoulders with Trump or his family. Using her photos of Mar-a-Lago from Safari Night, Yang advertised her access to Trump’s “second White House.” She claimed to be a member of “the president’s club.” GY U.S. Investments, Yang’s new company, boasted that she had set up a “presidential round table meeting and presidential dinner” for clients who had received a “group photo with the president.” She was operating on a tried-and-tested model, with a Palm Beach twist.
“Cindy was following the new Chinese immigrant playbook. They try to get in with whoever is in power. In 1996 it was Clinton. Now it’s Trump,” said a former GOP political operative. “It’s about creating some kind of notoriety so she can say, ‘I know famous American politicians’ and promise the same to other people.”
But those who know her said Yang didn’t actually have the kind of access or influence she was promising clients in 2018.
“All she could do was get them into a ball or gala and hope the president would come,” said Terry Bomar, the pastor behind Safari Night. (Bomar had no idea Yang was using Mar-a-Lago charities like his as a business opportunity. “She seemed to be very sincere,” he said.)
High-level CEOs and executives didn’t need someone like Yang to open doors for them. “She’s using this to attract your third-, fourth-, [and] fifth-tier Chinese businesspeople,” the former GOP operative said. Ultimately, Yang delivered on the one thing those clients cared about — photos that made them look important.
In her client’s eyes, getting a shot with the president was best. But photos in the president’s home with members of his family and other high-level politicians would do too.
More than even the White House, Mar-a-Lago became the crown jewel of China’s new Trump tourism industry.
“These rich people have been everywhere, seven-star hotels, everywhere. But they’ve never been to the president’s house,” said someone familiar with Yang’s business.
“You have money, but you can’t buy class,” the person said. “That’s what Mar-a-Lago is: class.”
Demand for access to Mar-a-Lago was so high that it didn’t matter what the event was, so long as tickets were available. Yang experienced no shortage of supply. The club’s post-Charlottesville newcomers were eager to sell her tables.
Among the first to sell to her was Steven Alembik, a Republican activist and die-hard Trumper known for sporting a custom-made stars-and-stripes blazer. (He’s also remembered for once calling Barack Obama a “f******* Muslim n*****.”) Even before Charlottesville, Alembik had been planning an event to commemorate the forty-fifth anniversary of the 1972 Munich attacks on the Israeli Olympic team. The idea came to him, he said, after the suicide bombing at South Florida pop star Ariana Grande’s concert in Manchester, England, in 2017. Alembik’s brainchild, held to benefit a pro-Israel charity called the Truth About Israel, was originally scheduled to take place at the Boca Raton Resort & Club.
Mar-a-Lago had been booked on February 25, 2018, for an Israeli disaster-relief organization’s fundraiser. But the group canceled after the president’s remarks on Charlottesville. Alembik pounced.
“I picked up the phone, I call Mar-a-Lago, they think I’m calling to cancel some other gala or some event, and I said no. I’d like to come here and show our support for the president of the United States,” Alembik said at the time.
He called the charities that pulled out “spineless.”
Alembik got to work selling tickets, dangling the hope that Trump would show up.
In fact, all he could do was hope and pray that the president might be in town that weekend — and would deign to stop by.
Cindy Yang and Charles Lee seized the opening presented by Alembik’s event.
In advertisements Lee described the evening as a “dinner” with Trump and said his clients would receive a group photo with the president.
Other promoters picked up on the event too. On Chinese social media and blog posts a flyer circulated that featured a headshot of Trump and advertised a black-tie, invitation-only event at Mar-a-Lago the same night as the Truth About Israel gala. “Because this event is a charity dinner,” one ad read, “the price of taking a photo with the president is lower than usual!”
A Chinese cryptocurrency platform purporting to be “the world’s first transaction platform to buy and sell the time of celebrities” advertised the event as a private dinner with U.S. politicians and business people that would give attendees the chance to shake hands with the president and snap a photo with him.
When the big day rolled around, the mainland Chinese tourist contingent numbered upward of a hundred, more than a quarter of the total guests. Some said there were as many as 250 Trump tourists in attendance. They were decidedly not there to learn the truth about Israel.
“To the Chinese, Mar-a-Lago is like the Taj Mahal,” one bemused attendee told Shiny Sheet society columnist Shannon Donnelly. “They want to see it.”
Though Mar-a-Lago was no stranger to the bizarre bordering on absurd, Alembik’s Truth About Israel event stood out. A Chinese Michael Jackson impersonator roamed the crowd. The pro-Trump social media stars Diamond and Silk fangirled over the impersonator. “Pinch me,” one of the women said to Paulette Martin, the event’s official photographer. “Michael Jackson! I need my picture with him!”
From the moment the doors opened, the event was something of a disaster.
The observant Jews who attended to support Israel found that hors d’oeuvres served around the pool included unkosher items like coconut shrimp. Many of the Chinese visitors couldn’t speak English and struggled to communicate with the Palm Beach ladies stationed at the door. When a guest offered to write her name out for a confused check-in attendant, she could only spell it in Chinese characters.
Making matters worse, there was no obvious seating chart, leading to a mad dash for tables.
When headliners like future Florida governor Ron DeSantis and GOP congressman Brian Mast mounted the stage for the serious portion of the evening, the Chinese had no clue what the impassioned, pro-Israel speechifiers were saying. Instead of listening, the overseas guests chatted amongst themselves, looked at their phones, and took photographs. “It was so pointless,” a Mar-a-Lago staffer said. Guests repeatedly approached staff, asking where the president was and how they could meet him.
One woman used her phone to show a Mar-a-Lago staffer videos of her daughter singing. She wanted to find out how her little girl could perform for Trump. Other guests tried to pass out electronics to employees as gifts, hoping it might grease the wheels for a presidential introduction. As far as the staffers could tell, the gadgets were largely junk. They didn’t turn on. “I tried to decline, but they insisted I accept them because they thought I could help them get access to Trump,” one staffer said. “Their English was so limited. I tried to explain that I couldn’t help.”
Unlike the guests, organizers knew Trump wasn’t coming before the event even began.
On Chinese social media a screenshot circulated that appeared to show a conversation between Alembik and one of the Chinese middlemen promoting the event.
“About 30 minutes ago, I was notified of a change in the President’s schedule,” read the message from Alembik. “He will not be in attendance on Sunday. We are looking at some possible alternatives. Will keep you apprised.”
“What the fuck,” one guest who traveled to Palm Beach for the event wrote in a blog post.
The Chinese cryptocurrency platform claimed the president’s schedule had been affected by a shooting, likely referencing the massacre of schoolchildren and teachers that occurred at South Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School earlier that month. But that wasn’t the real reason. Trump had long been scheduled to be in Washington hosting the annual Governor’s Ball. He had never planned to attend Alembik’s gala.
“The event was such a mess,” said a Chinese American guest who bought tickets because he was led to believe the president would appear. “People were cheated.”
Charles Lee had to scramble to keep his clients happy.
“The biggest regret of the banquet was that President Trump failed to attend,” Lee wrote in a recap of the Truth About Israel gala.
Luckily, he had a backup plan: a high-dollar fundraiser set for the following weekend at Mar-a-Lago to raise money for the president’s re-election.
“The National Committee of the Republican Party of the United States apologized to all the representatives attending [the Truth About Israel event]! And immediately sent an invitation letter to take remedial measures: Inviting all delegates to the banquet [at Mar-a-Lago] on March 3, 2018,” Lee wrote in his recap. (The RNC had no part in Truth About Israel, nor did it take any remedial action for the president’s absence.)
There was just one catch — Chinese nationals like Lee and his overseas guests couldn’t legally buy tickets. Federal campaign finance law states that only U.S. citizens or green card holders can donate to a U.S. political campaign. Tickets to the March 3 event were a political donation. That didn’t stop Lee from using an RNC flyer to advertise the event online — with the official prices haphazardly scratched off.
The only way for Lee and his guests to attend Trump’s fundraiser without breaking the law would be if an American citizen or green card holder gifted them thousands of dollars’ worth of tickets.
The day before the March 3 fundraiser, GOP activist Annie Marie Delgado got a call from a friend.
The friend said she had gotten a request for six tickets — and the people wanted to pay cash.
That made Delgado nervous. She wanted to know where the money came from.
The friend wasn’t sure but said the people asking were from China.
Delgado responded with a lecture on campaign finance law and a strict warning: “Stop right there.”
This article was excerpted from “The Grifters Club: Trump, Mar-a-Lago, and the Selling of the Presidency,” published by PublicAffairs.
Sarah Blaskey is an investigative reporter and data specialist at the Miami Herald. For their reporting on Trump tourism, she, Nicholas Nehamas, and Caitlin Ostroff were named finalists for the 2020 Livingston Award for Excellence in National Reporting.
Nicholas Nehamas is an investigative reporter for the Miami Herald. He was part of a team that won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting on the Panama Papers.
Caitlin Ostroff is a data reporter who used data analysis and computer coding to report investigative pieces for the Herald. She is a graduate of the University of Florida and is now with the Wall Street Journal.
Jay Weaver has covered courts, government and politics for more than 25 years for the Herald. A graduate of UC Berkeley, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in 2001. He and Nicholas Nehamas were also 2019 Pulitzer Prize finalists for a series on international gold smuggling.