The real question about the 32-year-old Chinese woman who was caught trying to enter Mar-a-Lago with four cellphones and a malware-loaded thumb drive isn’t how she almost succeeded. Rather, it’s how many others like her have made it through.
It is a fair bet that undercover foreign spies have long been making it their business to secure a membership at President Donald Trump’s Palm Beach, Florida, resort. Though the $200,000 fee is steep, intelligence agencies might consider it a bargain. Where else could their spies mingle with the American president and his family, overhear his conversations, maybe strike up chats with his associates—or at least boast to their superiors back home that they’ve been doing so? On the night of April 6, 2017, when Trump dined there with Chinese President Xi Jinping and, at one point, ordered a cruise missile strike on Syria, the entire spectacle unspooled within sight and earshot of club members and guests at nearby tables.
As of midafternoon Wednesday, we still don’t know what the intruder, Yujing Zhang, was up to when she showed up at the resort on Saturday, telling Secret Service agents that she was there to attend an event sponsored by the United Nations Chinese-American Association later that evening.
We do know, however, from the Secret Service’s official statement on the matter, that agents let her cross two checkpoints and that she was derailed only when a clerk at the hotel’s reception desk asked the guest questions and got foggy answers. The clerk, for instance, noticed that no such event was taking place at the resort that night and that she had no bathing suit, even though she said she’d arrived early in order to see the pool. At that point, the Secret Service reentered the picture and arrested her for lying to federal agents and trespassing.
The official statement noted, “The Secret Service does not determine who is invited or welcome at Mar-a-Lago; this is the responsibility of the host entity. The Mar-a-Lago club management determines which members and guests are granted access to the property.”
In other words: Don’t blame us; we’re just doing—and, in this case, not doing—what the boss says he wants.
And that is the main point. The Mar-a-Lago incident is but the latest sign, in a long trail of evidence, that Trump doesn’t give a hoot about keeping national security secrets secure.
Take the case, also late last month, of Tricia Newbold, the White House whistleblower who testified that senior Trump administration officials had granted security clearances to at least 25 people whose applications had been denied by career gatekeepers for “disqualifying issues” that put national security at risk.
In an unintentionally comical sidebar, Republican lawmakers issued a statement depicting Newbold’s concerns as partisan and overblown, adding that, of the 25 individuals on her list, “only” three were “senior-level” White House employees and “only” four or five prompted “very serious reasons.” The New York Times indicates that the three individuals were Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the president’s daughter and son-in-law, who are also special advisers, and John Bolton, the national security adviser
There was also the incident, in May 2017, when, during a meeting in the Oval Office, Trump told the Russian ambassador and foreign minister codeword-classified information—material not even shown to close U.S. allies—about the source of sensitive intelligence concerning ISIS.
Another ongoing source of anxiety to many in the intelligence community is Trump’s use of his personal cellphone to make calls and to tap out tweets. When Barack Obama became president, he told the Secret Service that he wanted to keep his Blackberry, in order to stay in touch with a few trusted friends. So the National Security Agency built him a one-of-a-kind device, which was stripped of almost all functions (no phone, no apps, etc.) and heavily encrypted, with codes and passwords altered routinely. Trump’s phone has no such features. Specialists say it should be assumed that everything he says and does on the phone is intercepted by any of a dozen foreign governments.
The New York Times also recently reported that Kushner and Ivanka Trump have used the private messaging service WhatsApp for official communications. Though WhatsApp is encrypted, cybersecurity specialists say it can easily be hacked by professionals.
The Trump White House is a clover field for spies, and Mar-a-Lago is its lushest garden. Whoever sent Yujing Zhang to Palm Beach would do better, next time, to apply for club membership in advance. It’s unlikely that Trump would care. He would probably welcome receiving the fee.