Only in Florida could a billionaires massage parlor pit stop unmask a possible spy ring Miami Herald

Only in Florida could a billionaires massage parlor pit stop unmask a possible spy ring

Patriots owner Robert Kraft charged with soliciting prostitution

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter, Fla.

New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft was charged with two counts of soliciting prostitution at a spa in Jupiter, Fla.

The Miami Herald is investigating how U.S. President Donald J. Trump has become a favorite target of a little-known Chinese industry peddling access to the rich and powerful. At the center of this Trump Tourism is Cindy Yang, a former Asian day spa owner, who sold access to Mar-a-Lago and the White House, raising concerns about national security. Read more:

A full-blown spy mystery with a Florida twist is playing out at the presidents winter White House in tony Palm Beach.

A Chinese nationalsits in federal custody, the public face of anewly revealed FBI investigationinto whether one of Americas biggest global rivals is using Donald Trumps eagerness to sell access to himself at his own private club to its advantage. Yujing Zhang, who the Secret Service says wascaught slinking around Mar-a-Lagolast weekend with four cell phones, waffling explanations for her presence and a thumb drive loaded with malicious malware, could be anything from an unwitting businesswoman to a linchpin in an international intelligence operation.

A sign is posted outside Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, days after a series of massage parlor raids in mid-February. The Florida prostitution sting ensnared New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft and others. Hannah Morse

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Speaking through a Mandarin interpreter at a preliminary hearing this week, Zhang said shes an employee of a private equity firm who flew in from Shanghai to attend an ultimately canceled social event and hopefully meet with the presidents family to talk shop. Federal agents, on the other hand, believe she may be a Chinese intelligence agent and an extreme flight risk.

Determining which scenario is closer to the truth is an effort that feels like a spy novel with considerable national security implications.

But if you peel back the layers around Zhangs arrest and the publics awareness of its significance, the story begins to feel less like a John le Carr book and more like an only-in-Florida Carl Hiaasen tale. Because before there was a furor around a possible spy infiltrating Trumps South Florida resort, there were revelations that a Chinese-American businesswoman had builta cottage industry of selling access to Trumpback home in the Far East and atabloid scandalinvolving a strip mall day spa in a sleepy South Florida beach town and a Super Bowl-winning NFL owner caught on hidden camera with his pants down.

The idea that this is about a Chinese spy ring disguised as a rub-and-tug disguised as a day spa … Its just peak. Weve reached peak Florida, said Miami filmmaker Billy Corben, whos built a cult following shooting popular documentaries about the states craziest stories.

Its hard to remember now as investigators try to determine whether foreign intelligence operatives are buying their way into Trumps inner circle withcampaign donationsand six-figure club membership fees, but the first thread to unravel in this yarn came in Octoberwith a tip from the Martin County Sheriffs Officeand a Google search of a massage parlor review site called .

At the time, the sheriffs office was well into a human trafficking investigation that would ultimately shutter 10 massage parlors and result in charges against more than 300 men. Theyd flagged the Orchids of Asia day spa in Jupiter, and within weeks surveillance and health department inspections discovered evidence of women living in the spa and performing illegal sex acts.

In January, police began following suspected johns. And in the middle of the month, according to Krafts attorneys, police faked a bomb scare, evacuated the business and installed hidden cameras that they then used to record nude massages and sex acts.

Kraft, who was charged with a misdemeanor in late February, has publicly apologized but pleaded not guilty. His attorneys say police botched the whole operation by lying about the pretense of a human trafficking investigation to gain a warrant for the cameras and by conducting illegal traffic stops to gain the identities of their suspected johns, including Kraft, who was required to turn over his ID even though he was being driven by a chauffeur.

The whole thing might have begun and ended with Krafts opprobrium. But while reporting on the sting, the Miami Herald discovered a bizarre twist: on the night that Kraft was celebrating his teams sixth Super Bowl win, the woman who founded the spa where police had set up their sting was at a party with a close friend of Krafts who also happens to be the president of the United States.

On her social media account, Li Cindy Yang hadposted a selfieshe snapped that night with the president. And, it turns out, the photo was just one of many that Yang had assembled with high-ranking Republicans, including congressmen, senators, media figures and Floridas governor photos shes used as a marketing tool for an enterprise offering access to U.S. politicians to businesses in China.

After major charities canceled galas following President Trumps fine people on both sides comment in the wake of the Charlottesville violence, Safari Night hosted by Elizabeth Trump Grau on behalf of a little-known organization called Young Adventurers became one of the top events of the season. After Safari Night, Mar-a-Lago became a top destination for Trump tourism.

Trump told reporters this week that he takes hundreds of selfies a day with adoring fans and doesnt know Yang.

Who is that? Trump said when asked about his relationship with Yang. I dont know anything about her. I take a lot of pictures with people that look like a selfie or something.

Whether Trump knows it or not, by the time he took a selfie with her, Yang had become a regular presence at Mar-a-Lago. Shed helped sell tickets for the galas scheduled in the wake of a white-glove exodus that followed Trumps controversial both sides comments in the wake of deadly white nationalist riots in Charlottesville. She began working within South Floridas small Republican Asian community to package Mar-a-Lago events in business-diplomacy tours marketed to Chinese investors looking to make connections with American politicians.

Yang has maintained that she has no allegiance to the Chinese government, and her attorney says shes the victim of bigotry and rampant and unfair speculation about her motives. But her business associate, Charles Lee, created travel packages that were explicitly intended to promote Chinese President Xi Jinpings 2015 business diplomacy agenda.

The idea that a billionaires sex act could expose a Chinese spy and influence operation may and probably should seem preposterous.

But the Sunshine State is exactly the type of place where a ridiculous turn of the screw can bring down an empire. It was only a few years ago that a fight over a $4,000 investment with a fake doctor based out of a strip mall clinic led an angry whistleblower to expose one of the biggest steroid scandals in Major League Baseball history and damaged the career of Yankees slugger Alex Rodriguez.

Who would have thought that this Robert Kraft thing was going to end in a Tom Clancy novel? said Corben, whose latest film, Screwball, documents the Biogenesis scandal.

Theres also the fact that Trumps presidency has been built on unconventional relationships and sordid financial his recent bookLet Me Finish, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie says Trumps White House staff has been built on a revolving door of deeply flawed individuals amateurs, grifters, weaklings, convicted and unconvicted felons who were hustled into jobs they were never suited for, sometimes seemingly without so much as a background check via Google or Wikipedia.

And just as there are odd links between Yang, Kraft and Trump, there are connections between Yang and Zhang.

According to an arrest affidavit, among the several stories that Zhang told the Secret Service at Mar-a-Lago was that shed come to the resort to attend an event that had been promoted by Yang on social media and hopefully meet with the presidents family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations. The event had been canceled after the Miami Herald wrote about the extent of Yangs influence peddling at Mar-a-Lago.

Zhang told the Secret Service that shed been invited by a man named Charles, who is likely Charles Lee, Yangs associate who brings some of the clients from China.

The FBI has also spotlighted Yang and Zhangs activities as part of a counterintelligence investigation first reported by the Miami Herald that began prior to Kraft being charged and had until then gone somewhat dormant.

Zhang hasnt been charged with any espionage activities, nor for that matter has Yang been charged with any crime of any nature. But prosecutors with the Southern District of Florida are now trying to keep Zhang in a Florida jail on charges of lying to federal agents and trespassing while trying to determine if she was in South Florida on a simultaneously clandestine and bumbling mission.

What the Trump presidency has normalized in American culture is the abnormal. The abnormal is routine. The illegitimate is the currency of the realm, said Fernand Amandi, a Democatic Miami pollster and host of the Strange Days podcast, which often revolves around the latest White House controversy. You might say Donald Trump is the national consciousness manifestation of Florida Man.

But, as Amandi notes, while the story around Yang and Zhang might feel absurd and over-the-top, the underlying concerns being investigated by the federal government could be profound. On Wednesday, Senate Democrats Chuck Schumer, Dianne Feinstein and Mark Warner wrote to FBI Director Christopher Wray to ask for a risk assessment of classified information at the presidents resort, and to remind Wray that they hadnt heard back from the FBI on a request to look into concerns associated with any interactions between [Cindy Yang] and the president.

Yang has mostly laid low ever since the Herald first published her photo. She sold her Palm Beach County home and hasnt been seen since making TV appearances to declare her innocence two weeks ago. Her attorney and spokesperson say she has been on a well-deserved vacation away from the spotlight. While they say Yang remains in the country, they refused to provide proof of any kind.

Meanwhile, Zhangs arraignment hearing is set for April 15, and her presence in a federal jail cell could lead to new insights into the whole imbroglio.

Or, it could just lead to more questions, and more intrigue around the subtropical romping grounds of the worlds most powerful part-time Florida man.

Well see what happened, where shes from, who she is, Trump said this week after dismissing concerns about Chinese spying at Mar-a-Lago and using the word fluke to describe Zhangs ability to access his resort. The result is they were able to get her and she is suffering the consequences of whatever she had in mind.

This article has been updated to reflect that Robert Kraft was not arrested by Jupiter police. He was charged as part of the sting operation.

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The Miami Herald is investigating how U.S. President Donald J. Trump has become a favorite target of a little-known Chinese industry peddling access to the rich and powerful. At the center of this Trump Tourism is Cindy Yang, a former Asian day spa owner, who sold access to Mar-a-Lago and the White House, raising concerns about national security. Read more:

Who has gained access to President Trump and Mar-a-Lago through Cindy Yang?

She lies to everyone: Feds say Mar-a-Lago intruder had hidden-camera detector in hotel

Feds are investigating possible Chinese spying at Mar-a-Lago and Cindy Yang, sources say

Trump Tourism: How Charlottesville enabled Cindy Yang to market Mar-a-Lago in China

Trump cheered Patriots to Super Bowl victory with founder of spa where Kraft was busted