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Chinese woman who entered Trump's Mar-a-Lago pleads not guilty

Al Jazeera logo Al Jazeera 2 days ago Al Jazeera English
a drawing of a person: In this artist sketch, Yujing Zhang,  listens to a hearing on Monday, April 8, 2019, before federal Magistrate Judge William Matthewman in West Palm Beach [Daniel Pontet/AP Photo] 

 [Daylife] © [Daylife] In this artist sketch, Yujing Zhang, listens to a hearing on Monday, April 8, 2019, before federal Magistrate Judge William Matthewman in West Palm Beach [Daniel Pontet/AP Photo] [Daylife]

A Chinese woman charged with lying her way into US President Donald Trump's Florida resort last month entered a not guilty plea on Monday in federal court.

Yujing Zhang was formally indicted on Friday with making false statements to a federal officer and entering or remaining in a restricted area, charges that carry a sentence of up to five years in prison.

During her arraignment and detention hearing in West Palm Beach, Florida, on Monday, a federal prosecutor said Zhang could face more charges.

Federal Magistrate Judge William Matthewman refused to set bail for Zhang, saying there is an "extreme risk of flight" if she were released. 

The FBI is examining whether Zhang has any links to intelligence agencies in China or political influence operations, two US government sources have told Reuters news agency.

Malware

Zhang was arrested on March 30 after Secret Service agents say she lied to gain access to the president's exclusive Mar-a-Lago club. She carried two passports, four cellphones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive carrying computer malware, agents said. In a later check of her hotel room, agents say, they found a device for detecting hidden cameras, more computer gear, $8,000 in cash and numerous debit and credit cards. She is not charged with espionage, but the FBI is still investigating. 

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The Secret Service said Zhang gained access by telling an agent outside Mar-a-Lago that she was a member arriving for a swim. Agents say she wasn't on the membership list, but a club manager thought Zhang might be a member's daughter - about seven percent of Chinese nationals are named Zhang, that country's third-most common surname. Agents then asked Zhang if the member was her father, but they say she did not answer definitively. They still admitted her.

Zhang's story changed when she got inside, agents say, telling a front desk receptionist she was there to attend the United Nations Chinese American Association event scheduled for that evening. No such event was scheduled and agents were summoned. They say she became confrontational, so she was taken off the property and then to the local Secret Service office, undergoing about nine hours of questioning. She had arrived in the US two days earlier on a flight from Shanghai to Newark, New Jersey.

Her public defender, Robert Adler, suggested during last week's hearing that Zhang may not have been lying but confused by the language barrier. But a Secret Service agent wrote in court documents that during questioning Zhang read and spoke English very well.

A Secret Service agent told Matthewman last week that when an agency analyst uploaded the malware found on Zhang's thumb drive, it immediately began installing and corrupting his computer's files. The Secret Service says when such tests are conducted the computer is not on any network, so no damage was done. Government analysts were still trying to determine the malware's purpose.

Adler said wire records show Zhang paid $20,000 in February to Charles Lee, a Chinese national, for admission to the event. Lee ran the United Nations Chinese Friendship Association and was photographed at least twice with Cindy Yang, a Republican donor and former Florida massage parlor owner. She recently made news after it was learned she was promising Chinese business leaders that her consulting firm could get them access to Mar-a-Lago and mingle with the president.

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