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By Xuan Thai and Rich Schapiro
WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — A federal judge on Monday denied bail to a Chinese woman who was arrested while trying to enter President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club with a trove of electronic devices.
Yujing Zhang, 33, has remained behind bars since March 30 when federal prosecutors say she lied to Secret Service agents to gain entry to the private club. Zhang pleaded not guilty Monday to charges of lying to federal agents and illegally entering a restricted area.
Federal Magistrate Judge William Matthewman refused to set bail for Zhang, saying he believed she posed an “extreme risk of flight” if released. Matthewman cited her financial resources in China and her lack of ties to the U.S.
“It does appear to the court that she was up to something nefarious when she tried to gain access to Mar-a Lago,” said Matthewman, who also noted that the U.S. does not have an extradition treaty with China.
Zhang told federal agents and club staff members conflicting stories when she tried to gain entry to the members-only resort last month, according to a criminal complaint.
Zhang was discovered carrying two passports, four cellphones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive containing computer malware, according to her criminal complaint. When agents searched her hotel room, they found a device for detecting hidden cameras, several debit and credit cards, and nearly $8,000 in cash, according to court papers.
Zhang was indicted Friday on two counts: lying to a federal agent and illegally entering a restricted area. She faces up to six years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutors said in court Monday that additional charges are possible. A prosecutor also said that subsequent analysis on the thumb drive suggests that it may not contain malware after all.
The FBI began investigating Zhang as a possible spy after her arrest but no espionage charges have been brought.
According to court papers, Zhang told an agent posted at a Mar-a-Lago security checkpoint that she was a member who came to use the resort pool, court papers say. She displayed two Chinese passports with her name and photograph to the agent, who then took her to Mar-a-Lago security to determine if she was a member of the club.
Mar-a-Lago security allowed Zhang to enter because her last name — one of the most common in China — matched that of an existing club member, according to court papers. Zhang did not give a definitive answer when asked if that member was her father, but the club granted her entry anyway. A “potential language barrier issue” may have played a role in the club’s decision to let her in, court papers say.
Zhang’s story changed once she made it to the club’s main reception area, according to court papers.
After being asked several times where she was going, Zhang said she was there to attend the United Nations Chinese American Association event scheduled for that evening. The receptionist, who knew no such event existed, summoned the Secret Service, according to court papers.
In the arrest affidavit, the agent said Zhang spoke English well and during questioning “became verbally aggressive with agents.” She had no swimsuit in her possession.