It’s been a wild ride with Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman caught trespassing at Mar-a-Lago last March. Her story changed several times along the way. She fired her attorneys last June and represented herself in court. She was found guilty in September and now she’s been sentenced. She was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court in Fort Lauderdale to eight months in prison and deportation.
The 33-year-old woman will only serve about one more week behind bars since she’ll be given credit for time served. At that time, she will be released into the custody of immigration officials for deportation. A consultant from Shanghai, she was caught sneaking into Mar-a-Lago, President Trump’s private club in Palm Beach, Florida. At first, she told the security guards that she was there to use the pool for a swim but she didn’t have a swimsuit with her. When she was arrested, four cell phones, a computer, and an external hard drive were found in her possession. She immediately was suspected of being a spy and that is when the Secret Service was called in. She was never charged with espionage. Text messages pointed to an obsession with President Trump. At the time of her arrest, Trump was on the golf course.
Prosecutors had requested Zhang be given a longer prison sentence – 18 months of prison time. Zhang was also given a sentence of two years of supervised release, but she’ll be deported. Instead of an espionage conviction, she was convicted of entering a restricted building and making false statements to a federal officer.
After the Secret Service agents failed to buy her story that she was on the property to use the swimming pool, she claimed to be at Mar-a-Lago to attend a U.N. event between the United States and China. An alert receptionist told the agents that the event had been canceled. During an investigation, one of the four cell phones showed evidence that Zhang knew the event had been canceled. A thumb drive found in her possession was first thought to contain malicious malware but that was later thought to have been a false positive.
It’s an odd story that we likely will never know all the details of since the prosecutors filed secret evidence under seal. National security concerns were cited as the reason for the secrecy. Judge Roy Altman wrote in court papers that the release of more evidence could cause damage to the United States.
Zhang’s trial provided some odd moments. After she fired her attorneys in June, she represented herself in court. One day she showed up in brown prison garb and jury selection had to be halted. Usually, defendants wear normal clothing so as not to prejudice the jury. Her reason given for her attire was a lack of underwear so she was taken to a holding cell. She changed into clothes found in her hotel room at the time of her arrest. During the trial, she sometimes struggled to speak English and was accused of deliberately appearing unable to understand the proceedings. All along she insisted that she just wanted to meet the president and his family.
“I came to the property and just followed the instructions and asked where to go,” she told the court. “I don’t think I am lying. I came to meet the president and family to just make friends.”
Now she finds herself going home. All things considered, she got off lightly. It sounds like she could have been charged with espionage and wasn’t. We won’t know that though since the evidence is under seal.