Republican National Committee raises $15.5 million in March

The Republican National Committee raised $15.5 million in March and spent almost as much — $13.5 million — as the committee prepares for the campaign for President Donald Trump’s reelection.

The RNC ended the month with $33.1 million cash on hand. It has raised close to $46 million this year, a staggering sum compared to the Democratic National Committee, which has not yet released its fundraising totals for the month of March but had raised $12.7 million as of the end of February. The Trump campaign announced earlier this week it had stockpiled $40 million, adding to Republicans’ campaign war chest as Democrats instead enter a months-long primary election.

The RNC spent $13.5 million in March and close to half of that money — more than $6 million — was paid toward expenses related to fundraising, such as telemarketing and direct mail. It is not uncommon for a campaign or committee to spend extra money to seek out new donors during the early stages of an election, with the hopes that later on those donors will keep contributing money.

One of the biggest recipients of the RNC’s money was Parscale Strategy LLC, the company linked to Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale. That company was paid $1.3 million for fundraising consulting in March.

Several major donors wrote big checks to the RNC last month including Michigan businessman Jon Cotton, who gave $355,000 to the committee, and GOP megadonor Robert Mercer, who has kept a low profile over the last year and a half but donated $4,700 to the RNC in March.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/20/republicans-fundraising-rnc-trump-1283782

Advertisements

Trump lashes out at Romney

President Donald Trump on Saturday ridiculed Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) for his loss to former President Barack Obama in the 2012 election — one day after Romney said he was “sickened” by Trump’s actions as detailed in special counsel Robert Mueller’s report.

“If @MittRomney spent the same energy fighting Barack Obama as he does fighting Donald Trump, he could have won the race (maybe)!” Trump tweeted.

Attached to the president’s post was a 40-second video contrasting election night footage and CNN news coverage from Romney’s White House loss six-and-a-half years ago to Obama with Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. It was unclear whether the White House produced the brief clip, or if it was crafted by one of the president’s supporters.

Romney is one of the few Republican senators who has expressed disappointment in the president following the release of a redacted version of Mueller’s report by Attorney General William Barr on Thursday.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told a radio station that the special counsel’s findings offered “an unflattering portrayal of the president," and Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) said in a statement that the 448-page report “documents a number of actions taken by the president or his associates that were inappropriate.”

But Romney was harsher in his criticism than his GOP Senate colleagues, saying in a statement Friday that he was “sickened at the extent and pervasiveness of dishonesty and misdirection by individuals in the highest office of the land, including the President.”

The Utah senator also said he was “appalled” that individuals associated with Trump’s 2016 campaign “welcomed help from Russia” — which Romney was roundly dismissed for naming as America’s greatest geopolitical foe during a 2012 debate with Obama.

Romney and Trump’s weekend swipes represent the latest in a years-long series of rhetorical barbs exchanged between the Republican Party’s two most recent presidential nominees.

Romney was critical of Trump’s candidacy throughout the 2016 White House race, prompting Trump to tweet in June of that year that Romney “choked like a dog” against Obama in 2012.

In January 2019, two days before Romney was set to be sworn in as Utah’s junior senator, he wrote in an op-ed for The Washington Post that Trump “has not risen to the mantle” of his office, and that the president’s “words and actions have caused dismay around the world.”

Trump responded less than 24 hours later on Twitter, writing online that he would “prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!”

Despite the mutual enmity, Romney — a former governor of Massachusetts — was reportedly once on Trump’s shortlist to become secretary of state. He dined with the president-elect in November 2016.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/20/mueller-report-trump-romney-1283781

Pope during Easter vigil: Reject the ‘glitter of wealth’

VATICAN CITY — At an Easter vigil in St. Peter’s Basilica, Pope Francis on Saturday encouraged people to resist cynicism or pursuing the “glitter of wealth,” and to avoid seeking life’s meaning in “things that pass away.”

“Do not bury hope!” Francis exclaimed, after noting that when things go badly, “we lose heart and come to believe that death is stronger than life.”

“We become cynical, negative and despondent,” Francis added.

For Christians, Easter is a day of joy and hope, as they mark their belief that Jesus triumphed over death by resurrection following crucifixion.

“Sin seduces; it promises things easy and quick, prosperity and success, but leaves behind only solitude and death,” the pope said. “Sin is looking for life among the dead, for the meaning of life in things that pass away.”

Encouraging the faithful, Francis said: “Why not prefer Jesus, the true light, to the glitter of wealth, career, pride and pleasure?”

At the start of the ceremony on Easter’s eve, Francis, dressed in white robes, slowly carried a lit candle up the aisle of a darkened St. Peter’s Basilica. At the chant in Latin for “light of Christ, the basilica’s lights were suddenly switched on in a dramatic tradition.

Arrayed before the steps of the altar was a row of cardinals, wearing ivory robes. Behind them in the pews sat diplomats with their spouses and thousands of rank-and-file Catholics, tourists and pilgrims among them.

Among those in the basilica were eight adults who were baptized by the pope during the Mass. The Vatican said these new faithful are from Italy, Albania, Ecuador, Indonesia and Peru. From a shell-shaped silver dish, Francis poured holy water over the bowed heads of the three men and five women, after they walked up to him, one by one, and listened to him calling their first names.

On Sunday, Francis celebrates Easter Mass in late morning in St. Peter’s Square and gives a speech from the basilica balcony. Known by its Latin name “Urbi et Orbi” (to the city and to the world), the speech is an occasion to reflect on the world’s war-ravaged and other tense spots while paying tribute to Catholics’ practicing their faith sometimes in the face of persecution or other difficulties.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/20/pope-easter-vatican-glitter-wealth-1283780

Fears grow Trump will abandon Afghan women to the Taliban

Jeanne Shaheen was facing down Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and not too pleased about it.

The senator asked Pompeo to push the Afghan government and the Taliban to include Afghan women in peace talks. But he wouldn’t fully commit to doing so.

“Senator, there are lots of issues that we’re working our way through,” Pompeo told her during the exchange in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week.

“I understand that, but this is half of the population in the country,” Shaheen shot back.

“Yes, ma’am, and I hope they will make their voices heard,” Pompeo said.

Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and the only woman on the committee, was not reassured.

The Trump administration says it cares about the future of women in an Afghanistan where the Taliban — who have a history of repressing women — may again have political power. State Department officials even hint that the country could lose out on aid funds if women’s rights aren’t protected.

But asked this week if she believes President Donald Trump and his top aides are genuinely serious about the issue, Shaheen was quiet for several seconds, then finally said: “We don’t know the answer to that yet.”

As the peace talks move forward, Shaheen is determined to keep pressing the issue of women. She visited the country last weekend, where she assured worried Afghan women that she’s not giving up on them.

In many ways, though, Shaheen cuts a lonely figure in Washington.

Protecting Afghan women once had vocal bipartisan support in D.C. — it was, after all, a cause célèbre among people ranging from former first lady Laura Bush to feminist heroine Gloria Steinem. But such public declarations have been notably sparse in recent months as the ongoing peace talks offer a shot at a U.S. exit from a war many Americans are eager to end after nearly 18 years.

The relative dearth of U.S. politicians speaking out has some activists fearing that Trump will compromise with the Taliban in ways that will threaten the gains Afghan women have made since 2001, including being allowed to attend school and work outside the home.

“The very fact that we have to say ‘Where are the women? Will women’s rights be protected?’ instead of understanding that all of that is integral to the future of Afghanistan highlights the problem,” said Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch.

“It’s Afghanistan fatigue,” she added. “Everyone wants to be done in one way or another.”

One telling moment came in late January, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, proposed a measure that warned Trump against a “precipitous withdrawal” from Syria or Afghanistan.

The Republican president, who has an isolationist streak, has made it clear he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from both countries as soon as feasible.

McConnell’s measure passed the Senate, but nearly every Democrat considering running for president in 2020 voted against it. Some accused McConnell of wanting to perpetuate a “forever war.”

The 2020 Democrats’ dissent was a reflection of the exhaustion with the Afghan war even among liberals who see themselves as champions of women’s rights.

Shaheen, who voted in favor of the McConnell measure and is up for re-election in 2020, acknowledged the political realities. On the women’s issue, “I think we need more support. It needs to be bipartisan,” she told POLITICO in a phone interview after her visit to Afghanistan.

As part of her campaign to keep the issue in the spotlight, Shaheen in early February wrote a letter, cosigned by fellow Democratic senators Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, that urged Pompeo to include and prioritize Afghan women in the peace talks.

In early April, Shaheen invited Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. — the first woman in that role — as her guest for NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s speech to Congress.

Shaheen keeps reminding the administration that Trump in 2017 signed a bill, which she spearheaded, that commits the U.S. to bolstering women’s roles in resolving global conflicts. She further points to research that shows peace deals are more likely to succeed when women are involved in crafting them.

Shaheen, 72, told POLITICO that she plans to ask other lawmakers heading to Afghanistan in the coming months to make sure to meet with women while there to understand the progress they’ve made thanks in part to the U.S. presence.

“The culture in Afghanistan has changed in some ways, certainly in the cities,” she said.

Inside Afghanistan, women have mobilized to the extent that they can in a country where men still dominate the power structure. They have held conferences and protests demanding they get a seat at the table.

And there are some signs that their voices are being heard.

On Monday, some news organizations quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying the group’s delegation to “intra-Afghan” peace talks originally planned for this weekend would include women. But soon afterward the Taliban walked that back.

The Taliban representatives had been due to meet in Doha, Qatar, with a delegation of prominent Afghans, many of whom were expected to be women. The talks were scuttled at the last minute over several issues.

Such discussions, while important, nonetheless carry less weight than the direct talks that have taken place between the U.S. and the Taliban. The U.S. delegation is led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

In his talks with the Taliban, Khalilzad has focused primarily on security issues, including paving the way for an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal while convincing the Taliban to agree not to shelter terrorist groups.

But Khalilzad has insisted that no peace deal is final until the “intra-Afghan” portion is inked. That potentially could include a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and the current Afghan government, or at least pave the way for the Taliban to formally enter the political realm.

Khalilzad did not respond to a request for comment, but a State Department spokesperson noted that his team includes women, and that his deputy, Ambassador Molly Phee, has “led portions of the talks with the Taliban.”

The spokesperson also alluded to some leverage that the U.S. can wield down the line if the Taliban take political power in impoverished Afghanistan: international aid dollars.

“We have made clear to Afghans that the success of our future bilateral relationship and Afghanistan’s relationship with the international community will rest in part on what it does to maintain civil rights of women,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Khalilzad himself has assured women’s groups of his sympathies: “While #Afghans alone will decide the composition of their delegation for talks, #women must be at the table during all negotiations about #peace & #Afghanistan’s future,” he tweeted on April 1.

But Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have said little to suggest that Afghan women’s participation in the talks, or the safeguarding of their rights in the long-run, is of such importance that the U.S. would be willing to abandon a deal because of it.

Activists worry that non-committal statements from Khalilzad, Pompeo and others Trump aides will open the door to a deal in which women’s rights are embraced in words but not in reality. That’s all the more likely if Taliban leaders gain substantial political power and interpret Islamic law more severely than the current Afghan leadership.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, before being ousted by the U.S. invasion in 2001, they forbid girls from going to school, barred women from working, and forced women to wear all-encompassing burqas outside the home. Women who disobeyed were severely punished.

In the years since the U.S. invasion, millions of Afghan girls have enrolled in school and many Afghan women have joined the workforce, especially in cities.

The debate over the peace talks today somewhat echoes concerns voiced during President Barack Obama’s tenure as he, too, tried with little success to engage in negotiations with the Taliban and get the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

At the time, Obama aides downplayed the issue of women’s rights, casting America’s primary geostrategic interest in the country as one of security and stability, not human rights.

That’s not unusual for any presidential administration’s view of any conflict. The U.S., after all, didn’t initially invade Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s brutality toward women. It invaded because the Taliban were sheltering 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers.

And if a peace deal fails, “we are not going to re-invade Afghanistan because of girls’ education,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official under Obama now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Despite the lack of Afghan female voices at the negotiating table under Trump so far, many Afghan woman are hopeful about the overall arc of the talks.

They, too, are tired of the war that has threatened every Afghan, regardless of gender, and would rather there be some sort of a peace deal instead of a sudden U.S. withdrawal that could plunge the country into further chaos.

There also are signs that the Taliban are not monolithic in their views toward women. In some Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan now, girls are allowed to go to school.

That the Taliban even considered including women in their delegation in Doha may suggest the group, or at least some of its members, realizes how much the country has changed since the 1990s, according to some who track the subject.

“I think that this means the Taliban realize that they have to engage on the women’s issue, and more engagement is better than less engagement,” said Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American board member of the group Women for Afghan Women.

Shaheen, too, noted that the Taliban, or at least some elements of the group, are more progressive than others.

But she still doesn’t trust them.

“That’s why any negotiation needs to be a conditions-based negotiation, where we don’t take them at their word,” she said.

Shaheen, who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, further dismissed the idea of a complete U.S. troop withdrawal, especially if al-Qaida and the Islamic State terrorist groups continue to have a presence in Afghanistan.

“Any suggestion that we’re gonna totally move out without leaving any kind of a counterterrorism mission there from my perspective is not realistic,” she said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/20/afghanistan-women-shaheen-1279707

Fears grow Trump will abandon Afghan women to the Taliban

Jeanne Shaheen was facing down Secretary of State Mike Pompeo — and not too pleased about it.

The senator asked Pompeo to push the Afghan government and the Taliban to include Afghan women in peace talks. But he wouldn’t fully commit to doing so.

“Senator, there are lots of issues that we’re working our way through,” Pompeo told her during the exchange in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week.

“I understand that, but this is half of the population in the country,” Shaheen shot back.

“Yes, ma’am, and I hope they will make their voices heard,” Pompeo said.

Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat and the only woman on the committee, was not reassured.

The Trump administration says it cares about the future of women in an Afghanistan where the Taliban — who have a history of repressing women — may again have political power. State Department officials even hint that the country could lose out on aid funds if women’s rights aren’t protected.

But asked this week if she believes President Donald Trump and his top aides are genuinely serious about the issue, Shaheen was quiet for several seconds, then finally said: “We don’t know the answer to that yet.”

As the peace talks move forward, Shaheen is determined to keep pressing the issue of women. She visited the country last weekend, where she assured worried Afghan women that she’s not giving up on them.

In many ways, though, Shaheen cuts a lonely figure in Washington.

Protecting Afghan women once had vocal bipartisan support in D.C. — it was, after all, a cause célèbre among people ranging from former first lady Laura Bush to feminist heroine Gloria Steinem. But such public declarations have been notably sparse in recent months as the ongoing peace talks offer a shot at a U.S. exit from a war many Americans are eager to end after nearly 18 years.

The relative dearth of U.S. politicians speaking out has some activists fearing that Trump will compromise with the Taliban in ways that will threaten the gains Afghan women have made since 2001, including being allowed to attend school and work outside the home.

“The very fact that we have to say ‘Where are the women? Will women’s rights be protected?’ instead of understanding that all of that is integral to the future of Afghanistan highlights the problem,” said Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch.

“It’s Afghanistan fatigue,” she added. “Everyone wants to be done in one way or another.”

One telling moment came in late January, when Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Republican, proposed a measure that warned Trump against a “precipitous withdrawal” from Syria or Afghanistan.

The Republican president, who has an isolationist streak, has made it clear he wants to withdraw U.S. troops from both countries as soon as feasible.

McConnell’s measure passed the Senate, but nearly every Democrat considering running for president in 2020 voted against it. Some accused McConnell of wanting to perpetuate a “forever war.”

The 2020 Democrats’ dissent was a reflection of the exhaustion with the Afghan war even among liberals who see themselves as champions of women’s rights.

Shaheen, who voted in favor of the McConnell measure and is up for re-election in 2020, acknowledged the political realities. On the women’s issue, “I think we need more support. It needs to be bipartisan,” she told POLITICO in a phone interview after her visit to Afghanistan.

As part of her campaign to keep the issue in the spotlight, Shaheen in early February wrote a letter, cosigned by fellow Democratic senators Bob Menendez and Patrick Leahy, that urged Pompeo to include and prioritize Afghan women in the peace talks.

In early April, Shaheen invited Roya Rahmani, Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S. — the first woman in that role — as her guest for NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg’s speech to Congress.

Shaheen keeps reminding the administration that Trump in 2017 signed a bill, which she spearheaded, that commits the U.S. to bolstering women’s roles in resolving global conflicts. She further points to research that shows peace deals are more likely to succeed when women are involved in crafting them.

Shaheen, 72, told POLITICO that she plans to ask other lawmakers heading to Afghanistan in the coming months to make sure to meet with women while there to understand the progress they’ve made thanks in part to the U.S. presence.

“The culture in Afghanistan has changed in some ways, certainly in the cities,” she said.

Inside Afghanistan, women have mobilized to the extent that they can in a country where men still dominate the power structure. They have held conferences and protests demanding they get a seat at the table.

And there are some signs that their voices are being heard.

On Monday, some news organizations quoted a Taliban spokesman as saying the group’s delegation to “intra-Afghan” peace talks originally planned for this weekend would include women. But soon afterward the Taliban walked that back.

The Taliban representatives had been due to meet in Doha, Qatar, with a delegation of prominent Afghans, many of whom were expected to be women. The talks were scuttled at the last minute over several issues.

Such discussions, while important, nonetheless carry less weight than the direct talks that have taken place between the U.S. and the Taliban. The U.S. delegation is led by Zalmay Khalilzad, the Afghan-born former U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan.

In his talks with the Taliban, Khalilzad has focused primarily on security issues, including paving the way for an eventual U.S. troop withdrawal while convincing the Taliban to agree not to shelter terrorist groups.

But Khalilzad has insisted that no peace deal is final until the “intra-Afghan” portion is inked. That potentially could include a power-sharing deal between the Taliban and the current Afghan government, or at least pave the way for the Taliban to formally enter the political realm.

Khalilzad did not respond to a request for comment, but a State Department spokesperson noted that his team includes women, and that his deputy, Ambassador Molly Phee, has “led portions of the talks with the Taliban.”

The spokesperson also alluded to some leverage that the U.S. can wield down the line if the Taliban take political power in impoverished Afghanistan: international aid dollars.

“We have made clear to Afghans that the success of our future bilateral relationship and Afghanistan’s relationship with the international community will rest in part on what it does to maintain civil rights of women,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Khalilzad himself has assured women’s groups of his sympathies: “While #Afghans alone will decide the composition of their delegation for talks, #women must be at the table during all negotiations about #peace & #Afghanistan’s future,” he tweeted on April 1.

But Khalilzad and other U.S. officials have said little to suggest that Afghan women’s participation in the talks, or the safeguarding of their rights in the long-run, is of such importance that the U.S. would be willing to abandon a deal because of it.

Activists worry that non-committal statements from Khalilzad, Pompeo and others Trump aides will open the door to a deal in which women’s rights are embraced in words but not in reality. That’s all the more likely if Taliban leaders gain substantial political power and interpret Islamic law more severely than the current Afghan leadership.

When the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, before being ousted by the U.S. invasion in 2001, they forbid girls from going to school, barred women from working, and forced women to wear all-encompassing burqas outside the home. Women who disobeyed were severely punished.

In the years since the U.S. invasion, millions of Afghan girls have enrolled in school and many Afghan women have joined the workforce, especially in cities.

The debate over the peace talks today somewhat echoes concerns voiced during President Barack Obama’s tenure as he, too, tried with little success to engage in negotiations with the Taliban and get the U.S. out of Afghanistan.

At the time, Obama aides downplayed the issue of women’s rights, casting America’s primary geostrategic interest in the country as one of security and stability, not human rights.

That’s not unusual for any presidential administration’s view of any conflict. The U.S., after all, didn’t initially invade Afghanistan because of the Taliban’s brutality toward women. It invaded because the Taliban were sheltering 9/11 mastermind Osama bin Laden and his al-Qaida followers.

And if a peace deal fails, “we are not going to re-invade Afghanistan because of girls’ education,” said Jarrett Blanc, a former State Department official under Obama now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Despite the lack of Afghan female voices at the negotiating table under Trump so far, many Afghan woman are hopeful about the overall arc of the talks.

They, too, are tired of the war that has threatened every Afghan, regardless of gender, and would rather there be some sort of a peace deal instead of a sudden U.S. withdrawal that could plunge the country into further chaos.

There also are signs that the Taliban are not monolithic in their views toward women. In some Taliban-controlled parts of Afghanistan now, girls are allowed to go to school.

That the Taliban even considered including women in their delegation in Doha may suggest the group, or at least some of its members, realizes how much the country has changed since the 1990s, according to some who track the subject.

“I think that this means the Taliban realize that they have to engage on the women’s issue, and more engagement is better than less engagement,” said Masuda Sultan, an Afghan-American board member of the group Women for Afghan Women.

Shaheen, too, noted that the Taliban, or at least some elements of the group, are more progressive than others.

But she still doesn’t trust them.

“That’s why any negotiation needs to be a conditions-based negotiation, where we don’t take them at their word,” she said.

Shaheen, who also serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, further dismissed the idea of a complete U.S. troop withdrawal, especially if al-Qaida and the Islamic State terrorist groups continue to have a presence in Afghanistan.

“Any suggestion that we’re gonna totally move out without leaving any kind of a counterterrorism mission there from my perspective is not realistic,” she said.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Source: https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/20/afghanistan-women-shaheen-1279707

Five Questions From a Former Spy About the Chinese Woman Arrested at Mar-a-Lago

What was a Chinese woman doing at Mar-a-Lago with her pockets full of passports and cell phones? The March 30 arrest of Chinese national Yujing Zhang at President Donald Trump’s vacation home certainly reads like a juicy spy drama. At the time she was arrested, after changing her story about why she was there, she had on her, in addition to two Chinese passports and four cellphones, a laptop and a USB drive later found to contain some kind of malware. More devices and $8,000 in cash were later found in her room at a nearby hotel.

Is Chinese intelligence attempting to infiltrate Mar-a-Lago? The answer to that is almost certainly yes. And so is every other foreign intelligence service. That’s just business as usual.

But is Zhang part of the Chinese effort?

U.S. law enforcement is still trying to figure that out. Earlier this month, Zhang was charged with lying to a federal officer and entering restricted property, but prosecutors have said more charges might follow. For now, prosecutors are treating Zhang’s case as a national security matter, according to the Miami Herald, adding that a team of FBI counterintelligence officers is on the case. According to the Herald, federal investigators were already looking into Chinese intelligence operations in South Florida before this incident occurred. Zhang’s arrest “has sent the counterintelligence probe into overdrive.”

As a former CIA officer, I am intrigued by Zhang’s role, but wary of jumping to conclusions about it, given the limited facts we know so far. Here are the five questions that might help us determine whether Zhang is a bumbling Chinese spy who got caught trying to infiltrate the president’s vacation lair, or if she is simply an innocent tourist who loves her hi-tech devices.

Why did her cover story fall apart so quickly?

The most basic tradecraft any intelligence officer or asset learns is how to build a decent cover story—an explanation of what you are doing and why, in order to cover what you are really up to—and to be ready to maintain it under questioning. Any cover story will eventually fall apart under enough scrutiny (because it is, in fact, a lie), but people trained in espionage know how to protect their story from collapsing too quickly or too easily.

So how did Zhang do with this? At the first Secret Service security checkpoint at Mar-a-Lago, she said she was there to use the pool. Her story initially worked; the agent waved her in. But she did not have a swimsuit with her, and the Colony Hotel, where she was staying, had its own pool. Then, when questioned again later, Zhang explained she was at the resort for a social event, which was not, in fact, scheduled for that day.

If this was an attempt to present a story to cover nefarious actions, it fell apart incredibly quickly. Maybe she was sloppy or poorly prepared? That seems odd for a professional intelligence officer.

Perhaps Zhang’s pool excuse was a quick and casual line to pass through the first security perimeter without many questions. Did she actually have a better cover story, or maybe a verifiable true story, she was able to present under more intense questioning? Zhang reportedly underwent four-and-a-half hours of questioning by the Secret Service. How did this go? What explanation did she give for her visit to Mar-a-Lago in this high-stakes setting? Did her explanation fit with answers she gave when applying for a visa to enter the country? Zhang reportedly previously traveled to the United States, in 2016 and 2017. Does her explanation for those trips match information she gave when applying for a visa, and how do those trips fit with her current itinerary and actions?

If Zhang isn’t a spy, or up to other nefarious things, why is it that she “lies to everyone,” as the prosecutor said in court? Could she simply be confused or did she communicate poorly because English is not her native language? Investigators, particularly those who questioned her, know better than we do about Zhang’s command of English. The Miami Herald reported that she “appeared to speak English” to a lawyer in court and she took notes during the hearing, but a translator was also present.

How would Zhang have operated inside Mar-a-Lago?

The president’s vacation abode is a target-rich environment. There are the obvious marks: The president and his inner circle. But those people are hard to access. Better targets might be the multitudes of people at Mar-a-Lago who aren’t in the president’s inner circle but who have access to those who are and can influence and glean information from them.

A casual observer could also gather a load of information simply by being present at Mar-a-Lago. Who is there? Who is trying to get access and influence people? Who interacts with whom? What activities do they participate in? What schedule do they follow? This could help a foreign intelligence service target people for recruitment as assets. It could also tell a foreign intelligence service what other countries are running operations there and which individuals they are targeting using what methods. This is important counterintelligence information for any spy agency, a window into other countries’ priorities and how close they are to achieving them.

It’s also possible Zhang wanted to observe the security situation at the resort, laying the groundwork for some future operation. She might have witnessed how Secret Service and resort security worked (or didn’t work) together and how freely Trump and his people move around, to determine what kind of access might be available.

Even without taking some deep cover, clandestine action, simply being present at Mar-a-Lago provides a wealth of information to anyone who is looking.

Or, maybe Zhang just wanted a glimpse of the president?

What’s with all the cash?

In some cases, espionage is a cash business. Spies often pay assets for information, and cold, hard cash is an easy way to pay people while hiding the source of the funds. Perhaps the Chinese government already has assets at Mar-a-Lago—among the staff, for example—and Zhang was there to pay them.

But Zhang’s more than $8,000 worth of cash (in U.S. and Chinese currency) was found in her hotel room at the Colony Hotel about two miles from Mar-a-Lago, not on her person. Unless she planned to enter the resort a second time, it seems very unlikely she was there to pay an asset for information.

Some tourists do indeed travel with loads of cash. Although Zhang has a Wells Fargo account in the United States that she could have accessed. And that account raises new questions. When and why did she set up this account and how has she used it in the past? Is her use of this bank account consistent with the investor and consulting business she claims to run? Or did she set it up years ago in an attempt to build her cover story while laying the groundwork for an intelligence operation? Investigators will try to find answers to those questions.

Is this a spy’s collection of devices?

When she was picked up at Mar-a-Lago, Zhang was carrying four cellphones, a laptop, an external hard drive and a thumb drive later found to carry malware. In her hotel room, investigators found nine USB drives, five SIM cards and a “signal detector” device, which could possibly be used to detect hidden cameras.

OK, that seems a little strange. It’s true that all kinds of professionals (including many in the financial sector) do go to great lengths to keep their activities secure from prying eyes or simply to separate out business activities and personal activities. Some people, for example, have a work phone and a private phone. And if someone travels internationally, they might have multiple SIM cards to allow them to have local phone numbers.

But an intelligence officer might also have multiple phones and SIM cards. Good spies follow the “one phone, one operation” rule. That is, they don’t call different assets using the same phone, because then they become linked, and key in any intelligence operation is to keep information compartmented. Much like you don’t want to send private texts on your work phone, you don’t want communications with multiple assets on a single device.

There is also the question of what kinds of phones these are. Are they burner phones, which are pay-as-you-go and not registered to an individual and therefore not easily traceable back to the purchaser and user? A spy would most likely use a burner phone. Or, maybe she was delivering burner phones to assets inside the resort to make communication easier? Or are these regular phones, registered in Zhang’s name or her company’s name? Investigators will certainly run traces on the phones and SIM cards to see if they link to anyone of interest or if they suggest a strange pattern of behavior, such as communicating with someone in a way that is meant to hide the contact.

Thumb drives are pretty normal in business, but malware isn’t. The fact that the first thumb drive Secret Service looked at had malware on it does not look good for Zhang.
It’s possible that a spy would want to use malware to destroy a network at the resort. But a foreign intelligence service would more likely be interested in using it to gather useful information. There is very little chance (if any) that Zhang could have gotten the malware anywhere near a government computer. But to slip a program into the resort’s network that would allow an intelligence service to see guest lists, schedules and itineraries, room assignments, and who is coming and going? Yes, that would be of interest.

Is Zhang just one part of a larger spy scheme?

What the heck is the “United Nations Chinese Friendship Association”? This is perhaps the most intriguing part of Zhang’s story.

Zhang explained that she was at Mar-a-Lago to attend a “United Nations Friendship Event” and that she had been invited by a Chinese friend named “Charles.” As the Miami Herald reports, a Chinese national named Charles Lee promotes events at Mar-a-Lago through his United Nations Chinese Friendship Association, which has no actual ties to the United Nations. No such event was scheduled at Mar-a-Lago that day, however.

By the way, Li “Cindy” Yang, the owner of a massage parlor that has been caught up in a sex trafficking sting who possibly sold access to Trump, promoted many of the same events as Charles Lee. (A spokeswoman for Yang told the Herald she has done nothing wrong.)

Is Zhang a private individual who, like others, used the association to get into Mar-a-Lago to help her business? Or is Zhang an isolated case of Chinese intelligence using the association for the same purpose? Or worse, is the Chinese government using the “friendship association” and its travel packages to funnel spies into Mar-a-Lago (and perhaps elsewhere)?

This wouldn’t be unheard of: Intelligence agencies often use front companies or “associations” to make their activities look benign and to disguise any involvement by the government.

In that case, it’s likely that Zhang’s arrest (along with scrutiny of Yang and Lee) just blew the association’s cover.

For now, it is impossible to say if Zhang was a confused tourist, who just wanted a glimpse of the president, or a bumbling Chinese intelligence officer whose cover story cracked. But one thing is for sure: Mar-a-Lago is target-rich environment for any real spy.

Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine

Source: https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/04/20/mar-a-lago-chinese-woman-226671