Prosecutors Backtrack on Claim That Mar-a-Lago Intruder Had Malware

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. prosecutors are backtracking on a claim a Chinese woman brought a malware-infected thumb drive to President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida.

The initial determination that the drive was infected may have been a “false positive,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Rolando Garcia said Monday at a bail hearing for Yujing Zhang.

Zhang was detained March 30 and formally charged last week with entering Mar-a-Lago without permission and lying to the Secret Service. She brought four mobile phones, a laptop, an external hard drive and the thumb drive to the resort.

Zhang pleaded not guilty on Monday. Judge William Matthewman in West Palm Beach denied her request to be freed on a $250,000 bond and subject to electronic monitoring, saying it appears Zhang was “up to something nefarious.” Her possession of the electronics is “especially troubling to the court,” he added.

Zhang had claimed she brought the electronics to Mar-a-Lago because she feared they might be stolen if she left them in her hotel room. But Matthewman said that claim was undermined by the fact she left a lot of other electronics behind.

A search of her room at the Colony Palm Beach hotel, about two miles north of Mar-a-Lago, had turned up another phone, five SIM cards, nine USB drives, a signal detector presumably for locating bugs or hidden cameras, and more than $7,600 in cash, mostly in hundred-dollar bills, prosecutors said.

Zhang, a consultant in the financial industry, has no ties to south Florida and the U.S. has no extradition treaty with China, the judge said, agreeing with prosecutors that she might flee rather than face trial. The judge didn’t specify where Zhang worked.

The case has increased scrutiny of security measures at Mar-a-Lago, the president’s private club, which he owned before entering politics and frequently used for official business. Trump and his family are regulars at the property, but it is also a for-profit enterprise that depends on private events and membership fees.

Probe Expanding

Investigators have been looking into Zhang as part of a broader FBI-led investigation into whether Chinese operatives are targeting Mar-a-Lago for information on the administration’s policies regarding China, according to a person familiar with the probe, who asked not to be identified because the inquiry is ongoing. The counterintelligence probe began before Zhang’s arrest but has since expanded, the person said.

Trump has made the pursuit of a new trade deal with China a cornerstone of his economic and foreign policy.

The indictment didn’t carry an espionage charge, but Garcia said additional charges may be filed. She now faces a maximum term of five years behind bars. Separately, Zhang’s visa has been revoked, which means she would be in the country illegally should she be released on bail.

In questioning a Secret Service agent last week, Zhang’s public defender, Robert Adler, had the agent testify that Zhang didn’t explicitly claim to be a member of Mar-a-Lago to gain access. A club worker may have erroneously inferred that she could be the daughter of another Zhang who was a member, but, as Adler noted, Zhang is one of the most common surnames among Chinese nationals.

Zhang also told a Secret Service agent that she was there to attend a "United Nations Friendship Event," according to the complaint. But Garcia told the judge that Zhang knew that event was canceled before she left China and acknowledged the cancellation in a WeChat message.

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