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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."

As Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich spoke with Zhang, she disappeared again into the women's bathroom. The agent grew anxious, so Grumaz said she volunteered to go into the bathroom to get Zhang.

"As soon as I stepped inside the door, I could see her texting on the phone," Grumaz testified. "I called and said, 'Ma'am, can you please step outside?'"

Zhang left the bathroom and was immediately surrounded by a group of Secret Service agents in the lobby.

Ivanovich, who testified after the receptionist, said he asked Zhang for her identification and she provided two passports from the People's Republic of China, one expired and one valid. She informed him that she was at Mar-a-Lago for the U.N. friendship event and that she arrived early to familiarize herself with the property and to take pictures, Ivanovich testified.

The agent said he learned from Mar-a-Lago security staff that Zhang originally told them at a checkpoint on the perimeter of the property that she wanted to go to the pool. The staff incorrectly believed she was related to a member. Ivanovich testified that he asked Zhang about initially saying she planned to go to the pool, and she did not confirm it. When asked by a prosecutor whether Zhang would have been allowed onto the property if she had said she came to attend the United Nations friendship event, Ivanovich said, "No, she would not."

Ivanovich said that he and other Secret Service agents escorted Zhang off the premises and brought her over to the nearby Bath & Tennis Club parking lot, the initial security checkpoint at Mar-a-Lago.

 

He said that when the agents began to search the electronic devices inside her purse, Zhang "became aggressive in nature." But she agreed to go to the Secret Service's West Palm Beach office for questioning, he said. "She continued to say she was there to attend a United Nations friendship event between China and America," said Ivanovich, testifying that he read Zhang her Miranda rights.

Ivanovich said Zhang explained during the interview that she made arrangements for her trip to Mar-a-Lago through a man named "Charles," and that she also planned to visit other parts of the United States. She told him that she only knew Charles through their phone messaging on the "We Chat" social media app popular in China.

The agent said he pressed Zhang about why she initially told the Mar-a-Lago security staff that her reason for coming to the president's private club was to go to the pool.

"I asked her why she said she was going to the pool, and she stated that she did not say that," Ivanovich testified.

He also said that Zhang indicated she went by the name "Veronica" in the United States.

Federal agents later searched her iPhone 7 and discovered that Zhang had received text messages from "Charles," who told her that the March 30 event had been canceled days before she left China for the United States. But Zhang flew from Shanghai via Newark to Palm Beach on March 28 anyway, Ivanovich said.

He said she first stayed at the Red Roof Inn in West Palm Beach that day, and then switched over to the upscale Colony Hotel in Palm Beach the following day. After her arrest, agents searched her hotel room and found a bevy of electronic devices, including a hidden-camera detector, along with $7,600 in U.S. currency and $600 in Chinese currency.

The Miami Herald has reported that the man who sold Zhang her ticket is a Chinese entrepreneur named Charles Lee. Lee is part of a burgeoning industry that sells access to elite events around the world, including some held at Trump properties, to China's status-conscious, camera-ready business class. The Safari Night Zhang hoped to attend had been promoted on social media by Lee as well as by Cindy Yang, a South Florida business woman involved in the same industry. The Safari Night was canceled after the Herald revealed Yang was peddling access at Trump properties and political fundraisers.

As the government makes its case, the second day of Zhang's trial, at least initially, proved less bizarre than the first.

The defendant showed up for Monday morning jury selection in her jail uniform, leading Altman, the judge, to send her back to change. Then she delivered only the briefest of opening statements after Altman coaxed her into addressing jurors, saying: "Good afternoon, grand jury. What I want to say ... I don't believe I did anything wrong. And thank you, USA."

Zhang, who has no legal training, has refused assistance from the Federal Public Defender's Office, which has attorneys available to her in the courtroom. She missed opportunities Monday to exploit potential weaknesses in the prosecution's case, including pointing out that she was originally allowed into Mar-a-Lago because club staff thought she was related to a member. She also had a chance to seize on a cab driver who could not positively identify her in court from a distance of less than 10 feet. The driver had testified that he drove Zhang around Palm Beach on March 29 and said she told him she did not have an invitation to Mar-a-Lago.

But instead of arguing her case, Zhang stayed mute.

(c)2019 Miami Herald

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