The founder of a Florida spa chain linked to prostitution went from political nobody to Mar-a-Lago elite, and the story keeps getting shadier.
The woman who founded the Florida spa where police allege Patriots owner Robert Kraft solicited prostitution appears to have also sold access to the president, according to investigations by the Miami Herald and MotherJones. The reports not only raise another red flag about how political influence has been monetized during the Trump presidency, but provide new evidence of how Trump-branded properties have become magnets for corruption and grift — and may soon lead to new investigations into what may have been illegal campaign donations to Trump and the RNC.
Who Is Cindy Yang?
At the center of this developing story is Cindy (Li) Yang, a 45-year-old entrepreneur and naturalized U.S. citizen from China who started fundraising for Trump in 2017. Yang and her family members founded a chain of Asian day spas in Florida, mostly under the Tokyo Day Spa brand. One of the spas Yang founded but later sold was the Orchids of Asia spa in Jupiter, Florida, where police say they filmed billionaire Robert Kraft paying for oral sex in late January as part of a multi-agency law-enforcement operation targeting human trafficking at spas in the state. Ten Asian day spas were ultimately raided and shut down as a result of that investigation, but Orchids of Asia was the only one associated with Yang.
According to the Miami Herald, there is no indication that Yang was implicated in the sting. However, the Herald reports that many of the day spas she and her family have owned and operated, including the location which later became Orchids of Asia, at the time Yang still ran it, have earned reputations as so-called rub-and-tug parlors, where sexual services are sold to clients in addition to massage.
Yang and her family members have opened at least six day spas as well as a massage school and several nail salons — all in Palm Beach and Broward counties. “The family’s Tokyo Day Spa branches have attracted the attention of at least two local police agencies over allegations of prostitution, and are discussed online as places where men can pay for sexual extras,” the Heraldreported on Friday. The publication dug through Yelp and websites aimed at would-be patrons of rub-and-tug businesses, and noted allegations from former employees and customers:
Online ads on obscure websites also raise flags about Yang’s businesses. In an ad written in Chinese recruiting masseuses, Yang stated that anyone over the age of 45 need not apply. Phone numbers associated with members of the Yang family are connected to various apparently old online advertisements for more explicit sex services.
The Herald reported on Friday that Yang denied that she or her family members had done anything illegal, but did not respond when asked whether they were aware of allegations that sexual services were being sold at their businesses. She also said she wanted to avoid negative press ahead of her upcoming move — to Washington.
From massage to MAGA
If there is any evidence that Cindy Yang had an interest in politics before the 2016 presidential race, the Miami Herald couldn’t find it. She hadn’t voted in ten years, but then seemed to undergo some kind of political awakening. She made some small donations to Jeb Bush’s presidential campaign in 2015 and talked about starting a “new life” in a Facebook post from a GOP women’s event in 2016. But then, she started posting more and more about politics on social media as the general election played out. She also removed her name from the business records of the spas she founded, and had founded what the Herald characterized as a disorganized charity called the Overseas International Female Organization.
Within a year of Trump’s election, Yang was deep in the MAGA muck. She had been to Trump’s inauguration, a fancy New York fundraiser, an elite lunch at Mar-a-Lago, and she had started fundraising for the president. She had also started amassing a large collection of photos of herself with Trump, Trump family members, Trump administration officials, Republican lawmakers, and conservative personalities.
Since 2017, Yang and family members have donated almost $60,000 to the Trump campaign and the Trump Victory super-PAC, and she has frequented Mar-a-Lago, where she recently took a selfie with the president during the club’s Super Bowl party. She’s also been to the White House, where she attended a meeting of Trump’s Asian American and Pacific Islander Initiative in February 2018. She has apparently attended at least two other events hosted by the group in Washington, as well.
Yang’s Trumpmania may not have been all about MAGA, however, as she didn’t just obtain access, but has tried to profit from it.
Selling the presidential selfie in China
A little more than a year after Trump’s election, Yang and her husband started a consulting firm, GY US Investments, targeting Chinese businesses looking to expand their operations in the U.S. The company’s website marketed Yang’s connections to Trump, his administration, and his conservative allies. To prove that point, the site featured numerous photos of Yang posing with Trump, Trump family members, White House officials and various other Republicans and conservative personalities.
And still more. Here are photos of Cindy (Li) Yang with Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao and another of Chao with Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross, both members of President Trump’s cabinet. https://t.co/xrqjKVlL2n pic.twitter.com/hd2EMeJwck
— Christal Hayes (@Journo_Christal) March 9, 2019
According to Mother Jones, “the overall message conveyed by the GY US Investments website seems clear: hire Yang’s company and she can get you close to Trump and his government — at Mar-a-Lago and in Washington.” The GY site, which went offline after the Herald story broke but can still be seen in archived form, claimed that the firm had arranged attendance and photo opportunities for clients at the White House’s “Asian New Year” celebration in 2018, had gotten “a number of guests” into the annual New Year’s Eve bash at Mar-a-Lago this year, and teased more opportunities to come:
The GY US Investments website lists upcoming events at Mar-a-Lago at which Yang’s clients presumably can mingle with Trump or members of his family. This includes something called the International Leaders Elite Forum, where Trump’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau, will supposedly be the featured speaker. Attendees, the site says, will include “Chinese elites from various countries, including the US states, as well as elite leaders from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Australia, Europe and other countries and regions.” Another event for which Yang’s firm says it can provide access is Trump’s annual New Year’s celebration at Mar-a-Lago. Elsewhere on the website, the firm boasts that “GY Company arranged a number of guests to attend the 2019 New Year’s Eve dinner. All the guests took photos with” members of Trump’s family. This page displays photos of Chinese executives and a Chinese movie star with Donald Trump Jr., suggesting that these pics were arranged by the company, and also includes a photo of Yang with Elizabeth Trump Grau.
Some more pics from Cindy (Li) Yang’s consulting business site: Photo with President Trump, Trump’s campaign manager Brad Parscale, Rep. Brian Mast and Adam Putnam, who was in the heat of campaigning for Florida governor at the time. https://t.co/xrqjKVlL2n pic.twitter.com/QExh7rcGFJ
— Christal Hayes (@Journo_Christal) March 9, 2019
The first Trump event Yang may have sold access to was in late 2017. On Saturday, the Miami Herald reported that Yang had attended a fundraiser on December 7 at Cipriani New York, and was accompanied by a group of Chinese business executives. She said the foreigners were her “guests,” according to one of the attendees:
In the 11 days before the event, Yang gave $5,400 to Trump’s campaign and $23,500 to the Trump Victory political action committee, according to a Miami Herald analysis of federal political contributions. [Yang] also claimed to have arranged the presence of a large group of business people from mainland China.
Nearly 100 of the 400 or so guests at the New York fundraiser were Chinese, according to Chinese-language media reports at the time. Even Trump noted the disproportion at the event, according to the Herald:
The source who attended the party said the president joked that the Chinese guests got all the good seats and would be omnipresent at future events if his American friends in real estate didn’t start donating more. The source said admission started at $2,700, and photos with the president were offered for $10,000.
Ten days after the event, Yang and her husband registered GY US Investments as a company in Florida and began marketing her access.
Coupled next to a photo of Mar-a-Lago, here’s how Cindy Yang’s business consulting website describes some of its services and how it can help you connect with President Trump and his cabinet:
— Christal Hayes (@Journo_Christal) March 9, 2019
Did Yang break the law?
Yang’s company is promoting an upcoming event at Mar-a-Lago featuring Trump’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Grau. The co. bills it as “a once-in-a-lifetime publicity opportunity” where “Chinese elites” will have the chance to mingle with Trump Grau and members of Congress pic.twitter.com/5iCxZXqkVA
— Daniel Schulman (@DanielSchulman) March 9, 2019
It’s not yet clear. Since U.S. election law only allows American citizens and permanent residents to contribute money to a U.S. politician, foreigners can only attend political fundraisers if they do not pay their way in. If Yang paid for a foreign citizen’s ticket, but was reimbursed by them — thus acting as a conduit for foreign donations — that would be illegal.
Mimi Rocah, a former federal prosecutor with the Southern District of New York, commented on Saturday that a law-enforcement investigation may now be an inevitability. She explained that there seemed to be “a lot of potential criminal conduct” in the reports, and the next step, she said, was to find out how and why Yang had access, predicting that, “I see subpoenas in her future.”
Reached for comment about her businesses and Trump connections by the Miami Herald, Cindy Yang said she did not know the president personally or work for him, but has volunteered with the Trump campaign:
“I just come to some events. There’s nothing special,” Yang said. Although she has claimed online to be a member of Trump clubs, she told the Herald she does not in fact belong to any.
Just two weeks ago, Bolsonaro’s son, a Congressman in Brazil, hung out at Mar-a-Lago where he celebrated @realDonaldTrump and said, “Build that wall! Brazilians are supporting you!”
— Zach Everson (@Z_Everson) March 9, 2019
Sam Vinograd, who served on President Obama’s National Security Council, speculated on Saturday that it was very likely China, thanks to its counterintelligence strength, knew about Yang’s access, and may have even directed it. Another national security expert, Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey made a similar point.
On Sunday, Mother Jones reported that Yang was an officer in two groups with links to China’s government, though stressed there was no evidence to suggest she was involved in espionage. According to the report, an online profile of Yang said she held senior roles in Florida local branches of the (American) Chinese Association of Science and Technology and the Council for the Promotion of the Peaceful Reunification of China (CPPRC). Both organizations have numerous U.S. chapters, and don’t at all prove that Yang was some kind of government agent, but they are still organizations which are linked to China’s Communist Party, and at least one, the CPPRC, is meant to help promote Chinese influence. Mother Jones also notes that Yang was once invited to attend a ceremony welcoming three warships as they docked in Florida — an event which was also attended by China’s ambassador to the U.S. and consul general.
What about blackmail?
Another potential security risk revolves around sex work that may have been performed at Yang’s day spas, as well as their proximity to Trump’s southern White House — Mar-a-Lago. What if, as the Daily Beast’s David Rothkopf loudly worried on Saturday, Trump or members of his inner circle have been customers at any of the spas operated by Yang and her family. Billionaire Trump friend Robert Kraft allegedly was. And billionaire Trump backer John Childs allegedly paid for sexual services at a different Asian day spa caught up in the same sting.
You don’t have to be a spy novelist to imagine the blackmail opportunities such a situation could create. There are no indications that any other Trumpworld figures were spa clients, but no one should be surprised if Trump’s tabloid presidency gets somehow crazier, or sleazier.
Is anyone else trying to sell White House access in China?
Yang, of course, is only the latest specific example of the gold rush of influence seekers and peddlers who have tried to work their way into Trump’s orbit since he was elected president. In the half-exploded ethical minefield of the Trump administration, concerns over executives and foreigners using Trump family businesses to gain access and influence within the White House have been repeatedly justified. Just this past week, ProPublica reported that a Mar-a-Lago member was able to get Trump to forward his personal policy idea to the head of the Veterans Administration — hardly the first or last time that will happen before Trump leaves office.
When it comes to obtaining access to Trump events, Yang’s company has been just one of at least several options for interested parties in China. Last May, the Washington Post highlighted the rising number of well-off Chinese citizens who were attending Trump fundraisers. They reported that official-looking offer letters had made the rounds among wealthy businesspeople in China offering chances to meet Trump at a campaign fundraising event in Dallas for as much as $100,000. The Post even tracked down the source of that offer, and heard about tactics which seem somewhat similar to Yang’s:
In an interview with The Washington Post, a Beijing man who claims to be an organizer of the excursion to Dallas said he coordinated a previous U.S. trip, bringing members of the Chinese business elite to snap selfies and pose for photos at a swanky Manhattan fund-raiser headlined by Trump in December. As part of his promotional materials for the Dallas trip, the man circulated pictures of wealthy Chinese business leaders, including a businessman known as the country’s first owner of a Ferrari, standing shoulder to shoulder with Trump in formal wear and giving a thumbs-up. …
Sun’s invite claims that he and his associates have “prior experience participating in three Republican president dinners in 2017,” including the New York visit. The Post could not independently verify his involvement in any trips. In the interview, he said his Beijing-based company aims to raise the profile of Chinese entrepreneurs. The $100,000 per-person price tag includes airport pickup, lodging, meals and translator, the invitation says.
The RNC, in their response to the Post’s story, denied having any knowledge of the efforts to woo Chinese nationals and said they would not have endorsed them if they had. “We maintain strict compliance with the law and have a zero-tolerance policy toward anyone who attempts to take advantage of the system in order to attend our events,” an RNC spokeswoman said.
There have also been suspicions about presidency leveraging in China from someone with the closest possible ties to Trump. Jared Kushner was reportedly aggressively pursued by China’s government after Trump got elected, and his family business was caught, more than once, using his connection to Trump to attract investment in the country.
Foreign citizens can spend as much as they want at Trump properties. At a typically Trump-attended event like the New Year’s gala at Mar-a-Lago, the money just goes to Trump’s company, not his campaign or the GOP. Trump did not attend the New Year’s event at Mar-a-Lago this year, having decided to remain at the White House during his partial shutdown of the federal government. If he’d gone, he may have run into Huachu Tang, the owner of an electric car company in China, who later told Yahoo Finance that he’d made the trip from China with his wife in the hope of meeting Trump and raising the profile of his soon-to-be-public company. It’s not clear if Tang was a client of Yang’s firm or not. He said he had arranged the trip through a PR agency. Stood up by the president, Tang scored photos with Donald Trump Jr., Eric Trump, and the president’s sister, instead.
This is Huachu Tang, owner of a Chinese electric car co., who flew 17 hours to attend the New Year’s celebration at Mar-a-Lago in hopes of promoting his company. pic.twitter.com/Ajz6zHfZsR
— Daniel Schulman (@DanielSchulman) March 9, 2019
Tang’s company, when asked by Yahoo, declined to reveal how much he had paid to attend the event. According to the Palm Beach Post, Mar-a-Lago raised its prices for the party this year, and a pair of nonmember guests could expect to pay the Trump Organization as much as $2,500 to attend. We don’t know who else was there, either. The Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics watchdog group has sued to gain access to Mar-a-Lago’s visitor logs, but so far to no avail.