The Weird Link Between Donald Trump’s Georgia Indictment and the Rapper Young Thug

The Weird Link Between Donald Trump’s Georgia Indictment and the Rapper Young Thug 1

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 [2020] 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.

Willis has become a celebrated public figure for her prosecution of Trump. The Philadelphia Tribune called her an “American hero” for her ostensible defense of democracy. The high-profile nature of both the YSL and Trump cases are still drawing attention to Willis’ use of Georgia’s racketeering laws. Drake, for example, recently showed support for his frequent collaborator Young Thug by sporting a hoodie that said “STOP RICO.” Georgia’s racketeering statute allows prosecutors to cite an array of conduct—even conduct that happened outside the state in, say, Washington, DC—to prove conspiracy, and it has been used “for quite some time without legislators taking a serious look at it,” says Andrew Fleischman, a defense attorney in the state. Now there’s real scrutiny.

This is where Trump’s hiring of Sadow is interesting. The deal Sadow got for Gunna boils down to this: evidence in exchange for probation. Although Gunna maintains that he didn’t cooperate with prosecutors and has “no intention of being involved in the trial process,” a spokesperson for Willis’ office told The New York Times he agreed to testify if called upon. In his plea he also attested that YSL is a criminal organization, which Willis could use in prosecuting other indicted members of the group, like Young Thug. Trump has pleaded not guilty, but Willis, although she’s maintained she’s ready to try all 17 remaining indictees (two were severed on Thursday), could be looking to make deals with some. The Wall Street Journal is already analyzing which defendants may “flip” first.

One big difference: Nearly all of Trump’s codefendants are out on bail. Young Thug and other members of YSL, on the other hand, have been awaiting trial in Fulton County Jail—a facility the US Justice Department is investigating based on concerns over the building’s overall safety and “credible allegations that an incarcerated person died covered in insects and filth.” Anastasios Manettas, the attorney for Miles Farley, the only defendant in the YSL case to be granted bond, says that although his client didn’t take a deal he was effectively being told, “‘You can go home on probation or you can wait without bond in one of the most dangerous jails in the country where people are dying regularly.’” (The Fulton County district attorney’s office did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story.)

Trump and his codefendants may not be faced with deciding between a plea or jail. Even when out on bond, White says, defendants who are caught in long RICO trials still often feel motivated to take a plea deal just to escape a legal quagmire and the endless legal fees. By charging a large number of defendants in both the YSL and Trump cases, Willis is creating cases that will drag on for months due to the amount of testimony and evidence needed for each defendant. And as the Trump defendants surely know, the Fulton County Jail is always an option, because bond can be revoked. “It’s all about feeding people into a system that makes pleading guilty the logical choice, even if they have a good defense,” White says.

Just how soon either of Fulton County’s high-profile RICO cases will wrap up is anyone’s guess. Young Thug’s trial, for example, has been going on for more than a year and still hasn’t set a jury. It remains unclear when Trump’s trial will even begin.

Regardless of how soon either case is concluded, both the YSL and the Trump cases will be a “huge expenditure of resources” for the Fulton County district attorney, White says, which could mean everyday cases “languish for longer.” Beyond just the defendants in the YSL case who have not been granted bond, people who have not been convicted of any crime “will spend lots of time in jail waiting for trials.”

White says that while he does support the prosecution of Trump under the right circumstances, what troubles him is how ignorant some observers of the case are of its context. “People love the system when it’s tuning up someone they don’t like,” he says. “Now Fani Willis has rabid fans.” To those cheering Trump’s indictment in Georgia, White offers a simple reminder: Just as with Young Thug and the YSL defendants, Trump is “being prosecuted in a system that is routinely brutalizing less fortunate people.”