Accused Mar-a-Lago trespasser proclaims innocence; thanks US
FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. (AP) — A Chinese businesswoman defending herself on charges that she trespassed at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club and lied to Secret Service agents gave one of the shortest opening statements in legal history Monday, proclaiming her innocence and appreciation for the country that may put her prison.
After a federal prosecutor gave a 20-minute opening statement laying out Yujing Zhang’s alleged lies that gained her access to the president’s Palm Beach resort on March 30 and her suspicious activities during her brief presence on the grounds, Zhang stood at the defense table for 20 seconds and addressed the 10 women and two men.
“I don’t believe I did anything wrong and that’s what I want to say. USA, thank you,” Zhang said in another unusual turn in an unusual case. She faces up to six years in prison if convicted.
Prosecutor Michael Sherwin, on the other hand, said evidence and testimony will show that Zhang’s story to club employees and agents contained one lie after another as it evolved. First, the 33-year-old Shanghai consultant told a Secret Service agent outside the resort that she was there to visit the pool and didn’t answer when an employee asked if she was the daughter of a member, he said.
The confusion over who she might be got her past two lines of security and into a reception area, where she surreptitiously took photos and video and told an employee first that she was there for a United Nations friendship meeting that didn’t exist, and then that she was there for a dinner, Sherwin said. When confronted by Secret Service, she dashed into a restroom where an employee saw her frantically texting, he said. He said she then told agents she was there to meet with the president and his daughter, Ivanka Trump, about China-U.S. trade. The president and his family were staying at Mar-a-Lago that weekend, but he was at his nearby golf club when Zhang arrived.
Sherwin said Zhang spoke English well during her interaction with employees and agents, and was “calm, cool and collected.”
“She wasn’t nervous or rattled at all,” Sherwin said an employee would testify. “She was extremely stoic.”
Zhang’s insistence on being her own attorney has frustrated District Judge Roy Altman. On Monday, jury selection had to be delayed as she came into court dressed in her brown jail clothes. Most defendants wear civilian clothes so the jury won’t be prejudiced against them. Zhang said she had not put on the clothes she had been provided because the jail had not given her any underwear. After some discussion of over which agency was responsible, she retired to a holding cell and donned a copper blouse and khaki pants.
Altman tried repeatedly Monday to change Zhang’s mind about representing herself as he has done during every hearing since she fired her public defenders in June. When he demanded that she answer yes or no if she wanted to use her attorneys, who are in court on standby, she went into a long monologue in Mandarin. Altman cut her off before it could be translated, and she said she didn’t want them.
He spoke to Zhang sternly after she told him “I don’t know why I am here” and said she wasn’t prepared because she said she thought the trial had been canceled.
“You know precisely why you are here,” Altman told her. He has repeatedly accused her at previous hearings of “playing games.”
Zhang primarily used a translator Monday, but at one point told Altman she hadn’t spoken Mandarin in months and was having a hard time following along.
“You speak Chinese — you are from China,” Altman replied.
But her refusal to use an attorney might have harmed her case Monday. Prosecutors called Willy Isidore, a Palm Beach limo driver, who spent 20 minutes describing how he drove an Asian woman who was acting suspiciously to Mar-a-Lago’s security checkpoint the night before Zhang’s arrest.
When asked by prosecutor Rolando Garcia if he could identify the woman, however, he said he wasn’t sure. An experienced defense attorney would have challenged Isidore and asked Altman to strike his testimony as unreliable, but Zhang said she had no questions.
Prosecutors have filed under seal secret evidence that they say has national security implications, even though Zhang is not charged with espionage. The Secret Service said when agents detained Zhang at Mar-a-Lago she was carrying a computer, a hard drive, four cellphones and a thumb drive containing malware, although agents later recanted the accusation about the malware.
Agents said Zhang told them she brought the electronics to Mar-a-Lago because she feared they would be stolen if left at her nearby hotel, but in her room they allegedly found a device to detect hidden cameras, computers, $8,000 in cash, and credit and debit cards.