Alleged Mar-a-Lago intruder represents self at trial

Repeatedly told judge she heard trial was canceled

By Elizabeth Joseph, CNN
Copyright 2019 CNN

Alleged Mar-a-Lago intruder Yujing Zhang represents herself at trial.

FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. - The trial of a Chinese woman accused of lying her way through a Secret Service checkpoint at President Donald Trump's Mar-a-Lago resort earlier this year got off to an unusual start Monday, when the defendant said repeatedly that she thought the trial had been canceled and there was a delay over her access to underwear and clothing.

Yujing Zhang, a 33-year-old businesswoman from Shanghai, has pleaded not guilty to counts of unlawfully entering a restricted building and making false statements. Trump was not on the property at the time of the incident.

Zhang appeared in prison garb, and Judge Roy Altman asked why she did not want to change into civilian clothes. She responded through a translator: "I don't know very much about the procedure. I don't even know why I'm here today. I thought my case was canceled before it entered trial. I thought that the government withdrew its case from trial."

Altman replied: "you know precisely why we're here ... you know about that, we've talked about that."

Eventually after an exchange about her lack of access to particular items of clothing, including underwear, Zhang was escorted out of the courtroom by marshal so she could change into civilian clothes. She returned in a coral colored silk blouse tucked into khaki pants.

Altman then asked Zhang if she would like to introduce herself to the jury.

Zhang, who is representing herself, repeated her earlier belief the trial was canceled.

"Are you saying that I need to introduce myself?" she said through a translator. "I don't really want to introduce myself and I really don't want to because I think the trial has been canceled."

Altman said "you are obviously unprepared to continue with trial," adding that she "concocted" a story about how she believes the trial is not going to happen, and suggested she use a federal public defender.

Zhang has been in federal custody since a receptionist at Trump's Mar-a-Lago club first grew suspicious on a Saturday afternoon in March. Zhang had told a first ring of security that she was there that afternoon to use the pool. To a second Secret Service agent minutes later, she showed an invitation in Chinese to a "United Nations Friendship Event."

In an interview at the Secret Service satellite office nearby, a third reason: she'd been sent by a Chinese friend, "Charles," to attend the event and "attempt to speak with a member of the President's family about Chinese and American foreign economic relations."

Though Zhang has not been charged with espionage -- she pleaded not guilty to counts of unlawfully entering a restricted building and making false statements -- an air of intrigue has hung over the case for months.

Before the jury was brought in, Zhang again said she didn't think the trial was going to happen.

In English, she said: "I think, my honor judge, I think today's trial has been canceled -- I don't know why I am here"

When asked again if she wants legal representation Zhang said in English, "I don't think so."

Altman replied: "You don't think so? Please stand for the jury pool."

Once the jury was seated, prosecutors made their case that Zhang knew what she was doing. "She is extremely educated, very sharp and extremely savvy," US Attorney Michael Sherwin said.

When she was arrested, Sherwin said, Zhang had four phones, a laptop computer, a hard drive and a thumb drive with her.

After he laid out his case in detail, Zhang's opening statement was brief: "Good afternoon, Honor and jury. What I want to say is that I don't believe I did anything wrong, and that's what I want to say. And USA, thank you."

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the trial is taking place in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

CNN's David Shortell contributed to this story.

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