WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – The Chinese woman charged with misleading Secret Service agents to gain entry into President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club was denied bail Monday moments after federal prosecutors back-tracked on testimony that she carried an insidious computer virus with her onto the property.
Under U.S. Magistrate Judge William Matthewman’s Monday order, Yujing Zhang will remain behind bars pending her trial on accusations that she illegally gained entry to Mar-a-Lago on March 30 during a weekend the president was visiting the sprawling club.
The no-bail order was handed down at a federal court hearing in West Palm Beach, which doubled as Zhang’s arraignment.
Zhang entered an initial plea of not guilty to charges of unauthorized access to a restricted area and making false statements to federal agents. The 33-year-old listened to the proceedings through a Mandarin interpreter amid debate between opposing counsel about just how much English she understands.
According to prosecutors, Zhang entered Trump’s sprawling resort and club two weeks ago and led Mar-a-Lago staff and Secret Service agents to believe she was attending a gala, despite knowing the event had been cancelled. Though she allegedly mentioned at the first security checkpoint that she wanted to go swimming, agents ultimately found no bathing suit in her possession, court documents state.
Zhang made it as far as the reception desk, where Mar-a-Lago staff determined she was not on the member list and the event she cited was not on the schedule. She had been allowed onto the club grounds because club staff believed she might be related to a club member also named Zhang, a common Chinese name.
Federal agents claim they searched her room at the upscale Colony Hotel and found nine USB drives, five cellphone subscriber cards commonly known as SIM cards, $7,500 in hundred-dollar bills, and a signal detector that can be used for locating audio bugs.
Zhang was allegedly carrying four cellphones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive when she made her way into Mar-a-Lago.
During Monday’s hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia conceded that a Secret Service agent’s headline-generating assertion that Zhang was carrying a self-installing virus into Mar-a-Lago “could have been a false positive.”
Garcia admitted that the latest forensic testing did not
replicate the initial computer analysis results described by Secret Service
Agent Samuel Ivanovich in his testimony
last week. Ivanovich had testified that Zhang’s thumb drive began immediately
installing a virus onto a government analyst’s computer during the preliminary
Ivanovich, who transferred to the West Palm Beach Secret Service office from Miami a few months ago, was already under scrutiny for having admittedly failed to make an audio recording for the four-hour long interview he conducted with Zhang.
He testified last week that he discovered “after the fact” that the room in which Zhang was being interviewed was not set up for audio recording.
Judge Matthewman said “he can only hope” that the Secret Service has corrected whatever caused the audio-recording blunder. He stopped short of questioning Ivanovich’s intentions, and described the agent’s testimony as credible.
“I do believe he intended to audio and video record [Zhang’s] statements,” the judge said.
While he did not mention the alleged malware as a contributing factor to his decision to deny bail, the judge said he was troubled by the amount of computer equipment Zhang was carrying. He said prosecutors had presented substantial evidence that Zhang was “up to something nefarious.”
Matthewman keyed in on Secret Service testimony alleging Zhang concocted an excuse for having so many electronic devices with her upon entering Mar-a-Lago. The Secret Service has stated in court that Zhang implausibly professed that she carried the electronics into the Trump-owned club because she was afraid they would be stolen from her hotel room at the Colony.
“It does seem to the court that her alleged innocent explanation is refuted [based] on what she left behind in her hotel room,” the judge said.
“She has no community ties here whatsoever,” he said of Zhang, who describes herself as a Shanghai-based investment industry consultant.
Matthewman said a lack of an extradition treaty between the U.S. and China played a role in his decision to deny bail. He said Zhang poses a serious flight risk and has “the financial resources to flee if she chose to do so.”
Zhang’s defense team maintained Monday that the entire criminal case arose from a language barrier between federal agents and Mar-a-Lago staff on the one hand and Zhang on the other.
“The sad fact of this case is that if a Mandarin interpreter had been provided at the first security checkpoint, we very well [may] not have been here today,” her public defender said.
The defense team claims Zhang paid $20,000 to a travel planner named Charles Lee to attend a Mar-a-Lago event billed as a venue for Chinese business people to meet international elites. According to promotional materials entered into evidence, Trump’s sister Elizabeth Grau Trump was supposed to be in attendance.
Defense attorneys confirmed Monday that the event was promoted by Cindy Yang, former owner of a Jupiter massage parlor now at the center of national media attention over a high-profile police sting, which yielded solicitation of prostitution charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others.
Zhang’s lawyers said she showed Secret Service an invitation to the event written in Mandarin, but the agents failed to promptly bring in a Mandarin interpreter to assess its authenticity.
Ivanovich noted in his testimony that he conducted the first phase of his interview with Zhang at a West Palm Beach Secret Service office without a Mandarin-speaking assistant on hand, as he believed Zhang exhibited a thorough understanding of the English language.
The Miami Herald reported that websites run by both Lee and Yang have gone offline in the wake of the national media reports on Yang.