Confusion and a 'concocted' story: Trial for accused Mar-a-Lago intruder off to a bizarre start

Posted at 8:00 PM, Sep 08, 2019
and last updated 2019-09-10 21:56:22-04

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. — Opening statements started Monday afternoon in the trial of Yujing Zhang, the Chinese woman accused of lying her way into President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago club on Palm Beach earlier this year.

Zhang faces charges of trespassing and lying to federal agents, and is representing herself. She plead not guilty to the charges.

Proceedings were held up on multiple occasions, with Zhang expressing confusion about different courtroom procedures.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Sherwin delivered an opening statement that lasted roughly twenty minutes. Channeling a similar analogy the judge used when addressing the jury earlier, Sherwin described the government's case like being a football game with four quarters.

Sherwin told jurors that by the end of the fourth quarter the evidence would prove Zhang's guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.

After the prosecution's opening remarks, Judge Altman asked Zhang if she wanted to make an opening statement as well. He then excused the jury for five minutes to address Zhang directly.

Explaining to Zhang her options for opening testimony, he once again asked if she wanted stand-by public defender Kristin Militello assist, in this case by making an opening statement on Zhang's behalf.

Instead, Zhang opted to deliver the remark herself, which was much shorter than Sherwin's.

"What I want to say is I don't believe I did anything wrong and that's what I want to say," Zhang told the jurors.


After opening remarks, three witnesses would take the stand before before the end of the day.

Throughout the witness testimony, Judge Altman called several sidebars to discuss exhibits being entered into evidence with Zhang and her apparent confusion about that process.

Special Agent Krystle Kerr with the Secret Service was the first witness on the stand, and testified that she was the first agent to encounter Zhang the day she was detained at Mar-a-Lago.

Kerr told the court Zhang handed her "two passports that were bundled together with a rubber band," and verified that one passport was current. She testified that Zhang told her she was there to go to the pool.

After checking with Mar-a-Lago security, Kerr said security staff eventually found someone with the same last name. Kerr noted that when asked if this person was Zhang's father, Zhang didn't really answer the question.

Zhang only had one question for Kerr on cross-examination, asking if the word "pool" that Kerr used was part of the club.

"The only place there would be a pool would be the beach club," Kerr responded.

Willy Isidore, a limo driver in Palm Beach, was the second witness to take the stand.

Isidore said he picked someone up the evening of Mar. 29 who identified themselves as "Veronica" and wanted to visit Mar-a-Lago.

He testified the passenger said they did not have an invitation or identification to enter Mar-a-Lago, but wanted to take a picture and was going back to the club the next day.

Isidore also testified that he could not positively identify "Veronica" from the night before because it was dark out, but saw her the next morning. When asked if the passenger was in the courtroom, he responded: "maybe, I'm not sure."

The last witness of the day was Paul Patenaude with the Secret Service. He worked at a secondary checkpoint inside Mar-a-Lago.

Patenaude was the second Secret Service official to encounter Zhang that day. He first noticed Zhang when she was being driven up from the parking lot in a golf cart, and testified that she appeared to be filming on her phone.

"She was calm, and poised, and well dressed," and complied with Patenaude's directives, which he said were in English.

Zhang didn't cross-examine either Isadore or Patanaude.

The trial wrapped up for the day around 5:30 P.M., and will resume Tuesday morning. It's expected to last until Wednesday.

After the judge left the chambers, Zhang could be seen speaking with stand-by public defender Kristen Miletello. There was no interpreter with them.

Court proceedings went into an early recess on Monday morning before jury selection even started after U.S. District Judge Roy Altman allowed Zhang to change into civilian clothing. She claimed to have no undergarments to wear with her clothes.

Judge Altman also accused Zhang of concocting a story about the trial being canceled.

Zhang, 33, is representing herself on charges of entering or remaining in a restricted building or grounds, as well as making false statements to a federal officer.

Since firing her public defender earlier this year and choosing to represent herself, Zhang has made no filings in the case, including proposed voir dire questions for jury selection.

Zhang's standby counsel, Kristy Miletello of the Public Defender's Office, was sitting in the gallery alongside members of the media on Monday. Miletello said it was her understanding that she was supposed to sit in the gallery since Zhang has opted to defend herself.

Zhang was wearing a brown jumpsuit when the U.S. Marshals brought her into court on Monday. At the last hearing, prosecutors said the clothes found in Zhang's hotel room would be given back so she could wear them at trial.

Zhang began proceedings for the day by addressing the court in English. However, Judge Altman recommended that for now, they use the translator.

"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Zhang told the court in the first few minutes of the hearing. "I haven't spoken Chinese in a while so I don't know how to express myself in Chinese."

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Judge Altman questioned why she was still in her jail clothing.

Miletello testified that Zhang was provided with clothing the Secret Service found in her hotel room, but Zhang told the court she had no undergarments to wear. Zhang then claimed she had no undergarments at the jail, with Judge Altman asking why she wouldn't change anyway.

"If you're not wearing undergarments as it is, and you did not have undergarments in the jail, then why not change?" Judge Altman asked.

"Could you provide me with my undergarments?" asked Zhang.

"I do not have undergarments," Judge Altman responded bluntly.

After Zhang talked with Miletello privately, the judge called recess so Zhang could change into a rose-colored blouse and khaki pants.

When the hearing resumed, Zhang repeatedly claimed she did not understand why she was in court, claiming the hearing had been canceled.

"Well, it's here so it's not canceled," responded Judge Altman, once again reiterating Zhang's need for an attorney. "You are obviously unprepared to proceed today with trial."

Altman noted that Zhang "concocted this story about how you thought the trial was canceled," and urged her to "reconsider what was a very poor decision back then, and a very poor decision now" to serve as her own attorney.

Zhang reiterated that she thought the hearing was canceled and wanted to ask more questions, prompting the judge to bring in the jury pool for jury selection.

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According to her arrest affidavit, Zhang lied her way into the reception area of Mar-a-Lago on March 30 by falsely telling security she was a member and was going to swim.

The affidavit said Zhang showed security two Republic of China passports, both in the name of 'Zhang' with her photograph.

At first, security was unable to verify Zhang's name on Mar-a-Lago's guest access list. However "due to a potential language barrier issue, Mar-a-Lago believed her to be the relative of member Zhang and allowed her access onto the property," the affidavit stated.

Once entering the reception area, Zhang told a receptionist she was at Mar-a-Lago for a "United Nations Friendship Event" between the U.S. and China, which was a nonexistent event.

Zhang claimed "she came to Mar-a-Lago early for the event so she could familiarize herself with the property and take pictures. Zhang stated she had documentation purportedly showing her invitation to the event, but agents were unable to read it as it was in Chinese," the affidavit said.

According to the affidavit, due to Zhang's lack of legitimate documentation, as well as contradictory statements she made to Secret Service agents, she was detained and taken to the agency's West Palm Beach office for questioning.


Agents said Zhang was carrying four cell phones, an external hard drive, and a thumb drive initially thought to have had malware installed on it. It was later determined there was no malware on the thumb drive.

In addition, federal prosecutors said agents found a device in Zhang's hotel room that could detect hidden cameras. They also discovered $8,000 in U.S. and Chinese currency, nine USB drives, five USB cards, and several credit cards in her name.

Prosecutors said Zhang has no ties to South Florida, and it's unclear what her motive was.

Prosecutors plan to call multiple witnesses including Secret Service agents, an FBI forensic examiner, FBI intelligence analysts, and an FBI language specialist.

Some of the evidence expected to be presented to jurors includes surveillance video from Mar-a-Lago, video of Secret Service agents questioning Zhang, information obtained from her iPhone 7, as well as plane tickets and hotel receipts.

If convicted of both charges, Zhang faces a maximum sentence of six years in federal prison.