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Woman Illegally Entering Mar-A-Lago Raises Questions About Security At Trump's Resort

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We learned yesterday about a woman who was arrested after illegally entering the president's Mar-a-Lago Club in Florida. Well, she was detained last Saturday while Trump and his family were staying there, and it's raised questions about security at Trump's private club. NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas has been looking into this. He's here in the studio now. Welcome, Ryan.

RYAN LUCAS, BYLINE: Hi there.

CORNISH: Remind us exactly how this went down.

LUCAS: Well, this is an odd story, but here's what we know. The woman has been identified as Yujing Zhang. She's in her early 30s. Court papers say she lied to the Secret Service to get onto the grounds of Mar-a-Lago. Originally she said she was going to the pool. Once inside, she told a very different story. She said she was there to attend a United Nations Chinese-American Association event later in the evening. No such event was scheduled. The club's managers said she wasn't on a list that would authorize her to be there. She was detained. According to court papers, at the time that she was taken into custody, Zhang was carrying four cellphones, a computer, an external hard drive and a thumb drive infected with malware. We don't have any more details on that malware.

CORNISH: Although she was also carrying more than one passport. I remember that being reported as well.

LUCAS: That's right. The criminal complaint says that she was carrying two Taiwanese passports that were in her name. I checked with Taiwan's representative office in the U.S. They say she's not a Taiwanese citizen. An American official told me that the passport information in the criminal complaint is actually wrong. The official says the two passports are in fact for the People's Republic of China - so mainland communist China, not Taiwan.

CORNISH: Does the China angle raise concerns about possible espionage?

LUCAS: Well, an incident like this does raise flags and questions about possible espionage. The odd assortment of things that she was carrying certainly adds to that. And China is very much aggressive in its efforts to spy on the U.S. government and American industry. Officials here have warned repeatedly about China's relentless efforts to steal U.S. intellectual property, U.S. trade secrets. They say China is also aggressively going after U.S. government secrets. A former CIA officer was convicted last year of spying for China. Another is set to go on trial later this month just outside of Washington, D.C., on similar charges. All of that said, in this case at Mar-a-Lago as of now, there are too few details at this point to know whether this is something sinister or something silly and totally unrelated to espionage in any way.

CORNISH: To step back for a moment, this is not a government facility. This is the president's private club. Does it make it harder for Secret Service to keep secure?

LUCAS: Well, I spoke with a former senior Secret Service official about that today, and I was told that securing a place like Mar-a-Lago is difficult. This is a private club, but it is in many ways open to the public. It's not like the presidential retreat at, say, Camp David, which is basically a hermetically sealed government facility. The Secret Service treats Mar-a-Lago like it would any hotel that the president stays in. They set up concentric rings of protection around the president and his family. The closer you get, the harder those rings become.

So physical security, I was told, isn't that hard to take care of. But from a counterintelligence perspective, a place with public access like Mar-a-Lago is very much a challenge. Remember; members pay a lot of money to be at the club. Agents have to distinguish who they are. They can't just shut everybody out. The Secret Service is also not trying to just protect the president physically. They're trying to protect conversations, documents, to prevent foreign powers from snooping on sensitive government matters. Bottom line, I'm told, a place that's open to the public, you have to assume that somebody, a potential concern, is going to get in, and you have to act accordingly.

CORNISH: And the next steps in this case.

LUCAS: Well, Zhang has been charged with making false statements and illegally entering a restricted area. A note - she hasn't been charged with espionage. She has been assigned a federal public defender. She's due in court next Monday for a detention hearing. And a week later, her arraignment is scheduled, so we may learn more then.

CORNISH: That's NPR justice reporter Ryan Lucas. Thank you.

LUCAS: Thank you.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Trump responded this evening to questions about the incident. He praised the work of the Secret Service and Mar-a-Lago staff and said he believes it was just a fluke situation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.