Strange espionage events with a Chinese flavor are piling up at Mar-A-Lago, President Trump’s home-away-from-home. Awkward questions are now being raised about what’s really going on, including: are the White House’s real spy problems with Beijing rather than Moscow?
In Goldfinger, the British spy-turned-spy-novelist Ian Fleming gave the world the classic line, ‘Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time it’s enemy action.’ Veteran counterspies generally suspect enemy action well before the third incident, however, and President Trump’s odd Chinese espionage incidents are getting too numerous to ignore.
First, there was the case of Li ‘Cindy’ Yang, a naturalized US citizen born in China, who caused a media sensation last month when it was discovered that since late 2017 she had become a habitué at Mar-a-Lago, the Florida resort which serves as Trump’s ‘southern White House,’ where the president enjoys entertaining friends, donors, and hangers-on.
Yang was one such, and controversially she previously owned a Florida message parlor where Trump’s billionaire pal Robert Kraft was recently arrested for soliciting prostitution – a scandal which included hints of human trafficking. Furthermore, it turned out that Yang, a self-styled political consultant, had been pushing her access to the president in ads aimed at the Chinese community in Florida. Photos of her with the president and a wide array of Republican notables surfaced, raising questions about what Yang’s access to Trump and his retinue really is.
Making matters worse, it soon emerged that Yang has ties to known fronts for the Communist regime in Beijing. Specifically, she had a leadership role in Florida’s branch of the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China, which advocates for the union of Taiwan with China on the latter’s terms. The CPPRC, which is known to Western counterintelligence agencies as a front for Beijing, is a subset of the Communist Party’s United Front Work Department, which reports to the party’s central committee. The UFWD exists to push the Beijing line on a wide array of issues, including to overseas Chinese communities. Its importance has risen in recent years, and in 2014 party boss Xi Jinping referred to the UFWD as the Chinese Communists’ ‘magic weapon.’
That was enough to raise serious counterintelligence concerns in Washington, and last month Congressional Democrats demanded an FBI investigation into the Yang affair, asking the Bureau to ‘conduct criminal and counterintelligence investigations into credible allegations of potential human trafficking, as well as unlawful foreign lobbying, campaign finance and other activities by Ms Yang.’
Things went from bad to worse this week with news that over the weekend, a Chinese woman attempted to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago for apparently nefarious purposes. Arrested while attempting to gain access to the ‘southern White House,’ Yujing Zhang was carrying four cellphones, one laptop, one external hard drive and a thumb drive, while that last item, according to the Secret Service, contained ‘malicious malware.’ So far, Zhang has been charged with entering restricted property and making false statements to a Federal officer.
Zhang initially told a Federal agent that she wished to enter Mar-a-Lago to use the swimming pool, but later changed her story, claiming she had come from Shanghai to discuss US-Chinese economic relations with a member of the Trump family. She also made mention of a non-existent United Nations event. Zhang, who was carrying two Chinese passports, had been enticed to the presidential resort by ads run in Chinese-language social media by – you guessed it! – Cindy Yang.
There were two Mar-a-Lago events on the books last weekend, both promoted online by Yang, one of which was advertised as hosted by Elizabeth Trump Grau, the president’s sister. What exactly Zhang was doing at Mar-a-Lago remains uncertain, but the Democrats’ wish has been granted, and there is a Federal counterintelligence investigation in progress regarding these strange Chinese events at the ‘southern White House,’ as the Miami Herald has revealed. This inquiry, led by the FBI, is looking into the Yang and Zhang cases, in an effort to determine how they are linked and, above all, whether these incidents are connected to the Chinese government. Who Zhang really is remains less than clear at this point.
Given known Beijing practices in espionage and political influence operations, which aggressively employ overseas Chinese in spying on the United States and many Western countries, the FBI has good reason to be suspicious about these cases. There’s a bevy of top-priority espionage targets at Mar-a-Lago, relating to the president and the communications he uses when he is in residence there. Beijing’s interest in such matters would be difficult to overstate. For spies, the ‘southern White House’ – with all the secrets of the real one but few of its defenses against espionage – represents a dream soft-target.
What’s going on down at Mar-a-Lago – including what, if anything, President Trump and his staff have connections to or knowledge of – is a question which needs an answer before there’s a third Chinese spy incident there, removing any doubt that this is enemy action, as Ian Fleming would say.