WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The FBI is examining whether a Chinese woman who bluffed her way into President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort last weekend had any links to Chinese intelligence or political influence operations, two U.S. government sources said on Thursday.
In a case that renewed concerns about security at Trump’s private club in Florida, the U.S. Secret Service arrested Yujing Zhang on Saturday after she got through perimeter checkpoints and raised suspicions when questioned about her visit.
When she was arrested, Zhang was carrying four cellphones, a laptop computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive containing what investigators described as “malicious malware.”
Federal authorities charged Zhang with making false statements and entering a restricted area. She is being held in custody pending a court hearing next week.
Since he took office in January 2017, Trump has regularly visited Mar-a-Lago, a commercial business in Palm Beach that he still owns and where he is in close and frequent contact with club members and guests, dining and socializing.
Congressional Democrats raised questions on Wednesday about security at the club but Trump brushed off the concerns, calling the incident a “fluke” and praising the Secret Service.
Two current government sources said that the FBI was looking into possible counter-intelligence implications of the incident, however.
Zhang told one Secret Service agent she was at Mar-a-Lago to use the swimming pool and later told another agent she was there to attend a U.N. Chinese American Association event. A receptionist determined no such event was scheduled and Zhang was escorted off the premises and arrested.
House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff said on Wednesday the leadership of the group Zhang identified as her host had “apparent connections” to a Chinese Communist Party unit called the United Front Work Department.
A source familiar with Trump administration policy on China said the department was part of the Communist Party’s Central Committee operation in Beijing, located “right across” from the compound which houses Chinese leaders.
A former U.S. government expert on Chinese intelligence operations, who asked not to be named while discussing sensitive information, said investigators would want to know, “Why, exactly, was she there? A decoy, a diversion, a feint, probing the perimeter for a substantive operation?”
The White House declined to comment on the FBI’s counter-intelligence investigation or related questions, and referred questions to the Secret Service, which had no immediate comment.
Representative Elijah Cummings, the Democratic chairman of the U.S. House Oversight Committee, said the Secret Service, which protects the president, will brief him and top committee Republican Jim Jordan on the incident.
(Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Sonya Hepinstall)