Yujing Zhang, who said she was headed to the pool at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday, was carrying four phones, two Chinese passports, one laptop, one hard drive and a USB stick loaded with malicious software. She didn’t have a swimsuit.
A court document filed by a Secret Service agent describes the curious tale of a woman awkwardly talking her way into Mar-a-Lago, a resort in southern Florida owned by President Donald Trump, with a flimsy cover story — and a heavy load of tech devices.
It’s unclear what Zhang’s purpose was. But lying to access the premises of a high-value target as part of a hacking attack is a well-known tactic in the cybersecurity world. It even has a name: social engineering. Still, simply carrying a USB stick filled with malware inside a building doesn’t add up to much of a hack. There’s no indication Zhang installed the software anywhere.
Zhang has been charged with making false statements to a federal officer and entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds. An attorney for Zhang declined to comment, citing an office policy of not commenting on pending cases.
If Zhang was trying to make it to a computer system inside Mar-a-Lago, she made it part of the way.
Zhang got past a security checkpoint outside Mar-a-Lago by saying she was going to the pool, Secret Service agent Samuel Ivanovich said in his affidavit. Zhang first underwent a physical screening from a Secret Service agent and then was referred to Mar-a-Lago security. Zhang was asked if a Mar-a-Lago member with the same last name was her father, but Zhang allegedly didn’t give a clear answer. She then was cleared to enter.
In a statement, the Secret Service said it doesn’t determine who is allowed into the resort. The screening was meant to determine whether Zhang had any prohibited items. If a guest is seeking access to Trump or another person under Secret Service protection, the statement said, the agency does further screening.
“The Mar-a-Lago club management determines which members and guests are granted access to the property,” the agency said in its statement. “This access does not afford an individual proximity to the president or other Secret Service protectees.”
Zhang was cleared to enter, and a resort staff member took her in a golf cart to the reception area. Once she got to the reception desk, she allegedly changed her story, saying she was there for a United Nations Chinese American Association event. No such event was scheduled at the resort. At that point, the receptionist alerted Ivanovich.
“The Mar-a-Lago reception staff then determined that the individual should not have been authorized access by their staff and Secret Service agents took immediate action resulting in the arrest of the individual,” the Secret Service said in its statement.
Zhang was taken off the premises and Ivanovich questioned her further. That’s when a search of her bag allegedly revealed that she was carrying a full load of devices. A forensic examination of the USB stick found evidence that it contained malicious software, Ivanovich said.
Though Zhang had previously appeared to speak English poorly, Ivanovich said he found she could read and speak English clearly. Zhang claimed she’d been told by her contact “Charles” over the WeChat instant messaging service to meet him at Mar-a-Lago and try “to speak with a member of the president’s family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations,” Ivanovich said.
Originally published April 2
Update, April 3: Adds statement from US Secret Service, more details.