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Mar-A-Lago And Security

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

She said she just wanted to see the swimming pool or maybe attend a conference or something. That's what a Chinese woman named Yujing Zhang said to security officials at President Trump's Florida resort, Mar-a-Lago. Later she was found to be carrying a thumb drive with malicious software.

Federal authorities are trying to determine if this woman was part of an effort by Chinese intelligence - or someone else - to target President Trump. The president played it all down when he was asked about the incident yesterday, saying his hotel staff dealt with the situation well.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, I think that was just a fluke situation. And I think that the person sitting at the front desk did a very good job.

INSKEEP: Former Secret Service agent Larry Johnson is here to talk about this. Good morning, sir.

LARRY JOHNSON: Good morning.

INSKEEP: Do you see just a fluke situation?

JOHNSON: No situation is a fluke. Everyone is scrutinized when in close proximity to the president. So...

INSKEEP: I guess what he means by a fluke is that it was just strange that somebody tried to get in with malware on a thumb drive. Do you think that that's probably just a one-off thing, that nobody else is trying to get into Mar-a-Lago and learn about the president?

JOHNSON: Well, I think we have a lot to learn about the intentions of this lady. What was she going to use the thumb drive? I mean, the Secret Service - the president does not use the Mar-a-Lago network, so was she intending to infect the network with the thumb drive? Usually you have access in a business center - in any semi-private area. So there's a lot to be determined with a follow-up investigation.

INSKEEP: Let's ask about a different thing though because, as you point out, the president is not noted for his use of computers other than a personal phone on which he is known to tweet a lot and make a lot of phone calls. But he's there. He's at Mar-a-Lago. He walks around. He eats among the other guests. Is there a strong incentive for intelligence services to pay the $200,000 membership fee to be at Mar-a-Lago to put someone close to the president and see what they can find out about him?

JOHNSON: Well, the Secret Service works on a perimeter strategy where there is a buffer zone, an outer perimeter, middle and inner perimeters. In order to get inside an inner perimeter of any Secret Service protectee, there's name checks, there's background investigations. Semi-private areas like Mar-a-Lago however, those that get into the middle perimeter are screened via magnetometers...

INSKEEP: Yeah.

JOHNSON: ...X-ray machines, bio-sensors. So...

INSKEEP: Well, that means they're not bringing a gun, I guess. But is it a security risk to have the president so constantly in his own resort where, according to the Secret Service, they can't really control who's allowed in or out other than checking them for weapons?

JOHNSON: Well, there's a lot going on behind the scenes. Control is - there are different levels of control. Once you get into the inner perimeter though, there is - all bets are off. Everything is scrutinized to a detail that the public is unaware of.

INSKEEP: Would this situation be a nightmare for you if you were still in Secret Service?

JOHNSON: A nightmare - we've had presidents that have - Bill Clinton, who did a lot of off-the-records, who would go into totally unscreened areas to shake hands. We can go back through history that presidents have to have access to the voters, to the public.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

JOHNSON: So it's a fine line of what is controlled and what is uncontrolled. You can make the argument that an uncontrolled, off-the-record visit - there's is no preplanning from the - from an individual that has bad intentions.

INSKEEP: Oh, yeah, just moving off the record might be safer in a way. Mr. Johnson, thanks so much.

JOHNSON: Thank you.

INSKEEP: Former Secret Service agent Larry Johnson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.