Feds Signal National Security Interest In Mar-a-Lago Intruder Case

Palm trees are seen across a lawn at Mar-a-Lago where President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping are meeting, Thursday, April 6, 2017, in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
Alex Brandon/AP

The Chinese woman who apparently loved Mar-a-Lago so much she was willing to lie to get inside — and possibly plant a surveillance device — has attracted national security interest in her federal criminal case.

A Wednesday court filing in the case of Yujing Zhang shows prosecutors asking a federal judge for the southern district of Florida to allow them to submit “classified information” in the case.

Zhang was found with a trove of electronic equipment, and claimed to be traveling to Mar-a-Lago to attend an event promoted by massage parlor mogul Cindy Yang, who peddled access to the President’s south Florida estate. She was charged in April with unlawful entry and false statements

Former DOJ espionage prosecutors told TPM that while the move to file classified information suggests that there is a national security component to the Zhang case, it’s unclear what that may be.

“It suggests at least that there has been national security interest in this defendant,” Ryan Fayhee, a veteran of the DOJ’s national security division, told TPM. “Not necessarily that her conduct in this case necessarily prevents that sort of national security, or is indicative of her being an actual agent of the Chinese government, but it does suggest that there was some national security interest.” 

Prosecutors made the request under Section 4 of the Classified Information Protection Act. If the judge approves the request, prosecutors will meet in the judge’s chambers to show him the classified material.

McClatchy reported that the motion suggests that law enforcement may have evidence that Zhang was something more than a Chinese tourist who wandered into the President’s Palm Beach mansion.

The attorneys TPM spoke with offered a picture that was less clear.

According to Rebecca Lonergan, a University of South California law professor who used to prosecute financial crime and espionage cases as a federal prosecutor, “We can’t tell from the fact of the CIPA filing whether it indicates that she is involved in espionage,” Lonergan told TPM.

She added that while it’s impossible to know “the nature of the classified information from the outside,” Zhang’s proximity to Mar-a-Lago suggests that security or counterintelligence systems around the president could be at issue. Alternatively, any information that the FBI collected checking for Zhang’s associations with the Chinese government — regardless of the result — could reveal intelligence sources or methods, warranting classification.

Zhang recently won approval from the federal judge in her case to represent herself, firing the federal public defenders appointed to her.

That could also present a problem. Defense attorneys in espionage cases are occasionally given security clearances in order to be able to review classified information relevant to their client.

A defendant who is suspected of being a spy and who is simultaneously representing herself would complicate that process.

Espionage-related cases are frequently prosecuted under other statutes in part because the government wants to avoid litigating issues around classified material in court.

Security experts have called Mar-a-Lago a counterintelligence disaster, as it frequently brings high-ranking U.S. officials to an active, privately-run club with a profit motive.

With respect to Zhang, the extent of her ties to the Chinese government — or the reason why she had a trove of electronics, some used for surveillance — remains unclear.

What underlies the intrigue is if she was acting on her own or as an agent of the Chinese government,” Fayhee said. 

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