Donald Trump has a new lawyer. Considering that the former president is currently facing indictments in three states as well as Washington, DC, that’s not surprising. What is notable is who he hired: Steve Sadow, the attorney who recently defended Gunna, the Atlanta rap star.
Gunna was facing racketeering charges alongside the hip-hop crew Young Slime Life, or YSL. His case ended last December with an “Alford plea,” a deal that allowed him to maintain his innocence while accepting a guilty verdict and community service. Cases against other YSL members, specifically Gunna’s mentor Young Thug, are ongoing. All involve allegations that YSL, rather than being a rap group, is a criminal organization.
Trump’s case in Georgia, the most recent of his indictments and the one for which he hired Sadow, is also one that alleges he was part of a criminal organization. Like Gunna and the 27 other people indicted by Fulton County district attorney Fani Willis in the YSL case, Trump and his 18 codefendants—including his former lawyer Rudy Giuliani and former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows—are being charged, also by Willis, with violating the state’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act. They’ve all pleaded not guilty. The Trump and YSL cases both promise to be long, drawn-out affairs complicated by lawyer wrangling, multiple motions, and the use of social media as a form of evidence.
Prosecutors generally use RICO because it makes life easier. Under the act, they don’t necessarily need to prove that a defendant has committed a criminal act, only that they associated with criminals who did. Willis has called herself a “fan of RICO” because it “allows a prosecutor’s office and law enforcement to tell the whole story.” In the case of Trump, that story came in the form of a 98-page indictment with 40 non-racketeering charges and one massive RICO charge tying them all together.
Within that large racketeering charge are acts that the prosecution claims demonstrate Trump and his cohort “knowingly and willfully joined a conspiracy to unlawfully change the outcome of the  election.” Like the RICO case against YSL, several of those acts—13 of the 161 total—involve the use of social media. For members of YSL, those acts include appearing in Instagram posts making particular hand signs. For Trump, they include things like tweeting “People in Georgia got caught cold bringing in massive numbers of ballots and putting them in voting machines.” Both cases show how prosecutors use social media to build RICO cases, and the outcomes of both will be high-profile examples of whether or not such tactics work.
When most people who follow US legal cases hear “RICO” they think “mafia.” That’s because the original federal racketeering act, which lawmakers passed in 1970, was intended to crack down on organized crime. Georgia’s version of RICO is “much more loosey-goosey,” says Ken White, a former federal prosecutor turned defense attorney. For example, nearly a decade ago prosecutors in Cherokee County, Georgia, brought RICO charges against three court reporters. Court reporters charge per page; the crime these court reporters had committed was changing the margins on their transcripts. Georgia’s attorney general, Chris Carr, is now bringing a RICO prosecution against 61 activists who protested the construction of a police training facility, the so-called “Cop City,” outside Atlanta.