WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (CN) – Saying it lacks the final word on who treks in and out of President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club, the U.S. Secret Service has denied responsibility for an incident in which a Chinese woman gained unauthorized access to the sprawling Palm Beach property under suspect circumstances.
In the wake of Yujing Zhang’s arrest on charges that she illegally entered Mar-a-Lago last weekend, the Secret Service issued a Tuesday evening statement saying that the club’s management makes the ultimate determination on who comes onto the Trump-owned property.
The Secret Service, which had agents on hand over the weekend for the president’s visit, said it treats Mar-a-Lago “no different” than other sites being visited by the president.
“While the Secret Service does not determine who is permitted to enter the club, our agents and officers conduct physical screenings to ensure no prohibited items are allowed onto the property,” the statement reads.
Sitting on more than 17 acres of oceanside land in a high-priced residential enclave in Palm Beach County, the club property was acquired by Trump in the mid-1980s. Dubbed the “Winter White House,” it has been a favorite weekend retreat for him throughout his presidency.
Trump has also used the club as a venue to host foreign leaders, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
According to a criminal complaint filed in the Southern District of Florida, Zhang approached the club on Saturday afternoon and told a federal agent at the first security checkpoint that she was there to visit the pool.
Purportedly, Mar-a-Lago management believed she could be a relative of a club member named Zhang – one of the most common surnames in China – and told Secret Service to let her in.
The Secret Service says it screened her for weapons and then followed Mar-a-Lago’s entrance protocol by allowing her to be transported by golf cart to a reception area.
Zhang then told the receptionist she was on hand to attend a “United Nations Friendship” event that evening, according to court documents.
No such event was taking place that day, and Zhang was not on the club’s member list, so Mar-a-Lago staff reported her to the Secret Service.
The Miami Herald noted that a promoter who runs the similarly named “United Nations Friendship Association” had advertised events at Mar-a-Lago, though that individual is not named in the court documents. The group, not affiliated with the U.N., had marketed Mar-a-Lago events putatively aimed at helping Chinese nationals meet and greet high rollers abroad, the Herald reported.
According to the Herald, a “Safari Night” event scheduled for Saturday at Mar-a-Lago was canceled after it was revealed that one of its promoters used to own a massage parlor that made national headlines as the site of an alleged prostitution sting that yielded misdemeanor solicitation charges against New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others.
The Secret Service claims it took immediate action to detain Zhang once Mar-a-Lago reception employees determined the event she was claiming to attend was not on the schedule. She showed agents an invitation, but it was illegible to them, written in Chinese.
During an interview, she “advised [an agent] that she came to Mar-a-Lago early” so she could “familiarize herself with the property and take pictures” before a gala, the criminal complaint states.
The complaint says she became “verbally aggressive” with agents at one point before being transferred to a West Palm Beach Secret Service office.
During a second interview, Zhang allegedly “claimed her Chinese friend” had told her to travel from Shanghai to Florida to attend the United Nations Friendship event and attempt to speak with a member of the president’s family about Chinese-American foreign relations.
Agents found a laptop, four cell phones, an “external hard drive-type” device and a thumb drive containing “malicious malware” in her possession, according to the charging document.
Prosecutors have not expounded on the nature of the malware.
Zhang is charged with illegally accessing a site that is under restriction due to a presidential visit.
She also faces a charge of making false statements to federal agents about her reasons for coming to the club. The charging document alleges that although she claimed to be visiting the Mar-a-Lago pool, she was found to have no bathing suit with her.
The Secret Service said in its statement that while Mar-a-Lago club management has the final say on who is permitted to access the property, “this access does not afford an individual proximity to the president or other Secret Service protectees.”
“In such instances, additional screening and security measures are employed,” the statement reads.
In a Wednesday letter to the FBI, Senate Democrats asked the bureau to work with the director of national intelligence to review national security protocols at Mar-a-Lago in light of Zhang’s arrest.
“The apparent ease with which Ms. Zhang gained access to the facility during the President’s weekend visit raises concerns about the system for screening visitors, including the reliance on determinations made by Mar-a-Lago employees,” the letter reads. “As the White House Communications Agency and Secret Service coordinate to establish several secure areas at Mar-a-Lago for handling classified information when the President travels there, these potential vulnerabilities have serious national security implications.”
The letter was signed by Senators Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Mark Warner.
Warner and Feinstein, among others, delivered a similar message to the FBI on March 15, urging it to look into the massage parlor ex-owner’s business GY US Investments, which allegedly sold Chinese clients access to Mar-a-Lago events, promising a chance to rub shoulders with Trump and his family.