The Trump presidency used to feel like a Christopher Buckley novel. This week, it started to feel like one written by Dave Barry. A novel where the sentence “A Chinese entrepreneur who founded a chain of South Florida day spas where sex can allegedly be purchased along with a manicure gets in over her head when she starts an investment firm selling clients access to the exclusive private club owned by a one-time reality TV star billionaire who is now the President of the United States” could be found on the inside jacket.
The jacket might continue, “Then, trouble. A billionaire friend of the president and owner of a storied NFL team is arrested for solicitation of prostitution in a spa that she once owned. The attention casts a spotlight on her and her other business…and whether the Chinese nationals she caters to are quite what they seem.”
Somewhere, Carl Hiassen gnashes his teeth and tosses his laptop across the room.
And yet, this scandal is real. This week, the Miami Herald dug up photos of that entrepreneur, 45-year-old Li “Cindy” Yang, posing with a variety of Republican politicians at political fundraisers and other events at Donald Trump’s club, Mar-a-Lago. There was Yang sitting next to President Trump during a Super Bowl watch party this past February. There was Yang with then-congressman and now-governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis, at a pro-Israel gala a year ago. There were photos of her with Sarah Palin, with Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, with Trump’s adult sons, Don Jr. and Eric.
In some of the pictures, Yang is holding her purse, a small clutch with the word MAGA bejeweled in rhinestones on the side. Perfect.
On Saturday, Mother Jones published a deeper investigation into Yang’s ties to Mar-a-Lago. The magazine describes a business founded in 2017 by Lang and husband Zubin Gong called GY US Investments LLC. Among other services, the firm’s website also promised to “address clients looking to make high-level connections in the United States.” One way the firm accomplished this task, apparently, was getting clients into functions at Mar-a-Lago to hobnob with the wealthy elites there, up to and including President Trump and members of his family. The firm’s website, which has stopped working since Mother Jones started working on its story, advertised access to an event featuring Trump’s sister, Elizabeth Trump Glau, and to the president’s famous New Year’s Eve gala. That party was always a heavy draw with the wealthy Palm Beach elites who make up Mar-a-Lago’s membership roles. During the Trump administration, it has also attracted high-level government officials and Cabinet secretaries.
Meanwhile, The Daily Beast published a David Rothkopf column noting the danger to American interests of having a president so willing to sell himself and his business interests to anyone, including foreigners, with a big enough checkbook. “As foreign governments have recognized since Trump became a candidate for president, his deeply flawed character presents them with myriad opportunities to influence him and by extension U.S. policy,” Rothkopf writes. “They could do it by playing to his greed, to his insatiable desire for flattery, to the needs of his businesses or by threatening to expose his sleazy or perhaps criminal behavior.”
Rothkopf reiterates that in the absence of more information, we should be careful about speculating about what else might be going on with Li Yang and her clients. But the whole sordid tale underscores just how badly unfit for office Doanld Trump is, thanks in part to his insatiable greed.
In an ordinary presidency, this story would have set Washington, D.C. on fire. In the Trump era, at least for the moment, the reaction seems to have been more of a collective eyeroll. There have already been so many stories of Mar-a-Lago attracting corruption like the Everglades attracts mosquitoes that the public may be inured to a new one. The Trump might be enriching themselves by selling access to Mar-a-Lago? Old news. What else you got?
This scandal should be a big deal anyway. It should be investigated by Congress, at a minimum, even if the legislature is already stretched thin chasing down the myriad Trump administration scandals. It should be investigated because while some day the Trump presidency is going to end, the money his family has made off it will keep them rolling in gold-plated faucets and private hunting lodges for decades. It should be investigated because the effects of whatever interests the Trumps are selling off to the highest bidders – development rights to public lands, healthcare for veterans, what have you – will be with us for generations.