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Mar-a-Lago receptionist, not Secret Service, recognized Chinese woman as likely intruder

Jay Weaver and Nicholas Nehamas, Miami Herald on

Published in News & Features

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Chinese businesswoman Yujing Zhang caught the eye of the receptionist at President Donald Trump's private Mar-a-Lago club as soon as she walked through the palatial front door around noon on March 30, according to testimony presented in federal court Tuesday.

The Mar-a-Lago receptionist, Ariela Grumaz, had never seen Zhang before and noticed the stranger was wearing a long gray dress -- oddly formal for lunchtime -- and shooting video with her phone in the club's ornate lobby. Then Zhang breezed by the receptionist into a lounge area.

"As soon as she entered the lobby, you could see she was fascinated by the decorations and that's when I realized she had never been here before," Grumaz testified at Zhang's trespassing trial in Fort Lauderdale federal court, noting that no video or photos are allowed inside the Palm Beach resort.

And so began the encounter that would lead to Zhang's arrest by federal agents on felony charges of trespassing at Mar-a-Lago and lying to a federal agent, instigated by not the government security that surrounds Trump and his family but an employee of the Trump Organization.

If convicted by the 12-member jury, Zhang, 33, who has chosen to represent herself in court against a judge's strong advice, faces up to six years in prison.

Zhang, who says she is a successful businesswoman from Shanghai, is also under scrutiny from a federal counterintelligence investigation, although she has not been charged with spying. She has denied any wrongdoing, speaking infrequently during a trial that began in unusual fashion Monday when she showed up in a jail uniform rather than the civilian clothes that had been provided to her. On Tuesday, Zhang occasionally objected to the government presenting certain evidence such as records from her iPhone 7 but was consistently overruled by U.S. District Court Judge Roy Altman.

 

Federal prosecutors are basing their case on evidence that Zhang knew she had no reason to enter the president's club and nonetheless lied her way in. Grumaz, the receptionist, proved a valuable witness Tuesday.

That afternoon at Mar-a-Lago, Grumaz recalled in her testimony, she stopped the Chinese woman and asked for her name. She said Zhang was not on the list of members or guests at Mar-a-Lago. Grumaz asked if she had an appointment. Zhang showed the receptionist something on her cellphone indicating she was attending a United Nations friendship event between China and America that evening. But Grumaz said she checked with the catering manager and found there was no such event scheduled.

Zhang had in fact bought a ticket for a Safari Night charity gala originally on the calendar for that evening. But the event had been canceled a few days before, something Zhang was well aware of at the time, prosecutors argued.

After their initial conversation, Grumaz testified, she got suspicious and told a Secret Service agent in the lobby about Zhang's presence. "She was acting very weird and strange," Grumaz said, pointing out that Zhang had abruptly gone into the women's bathroom. "We didn't know how she got on the premises. So I had to speak with him."

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