Hey, Republicans! It's Trump who "criminalized politics" by turning the GOP into a two-bit mafia

Ron DeSantis complains that RICO is for "organized crime." Sorry, dude — that's exactly what a coup conspiracy is

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published August 17, 2023 6:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Tim Scott and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, Tim Scott and Ron DeSantis (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis wrapped up her case early and with a bang on Monday night, securing indictments against Donald Trump and 18 other people for conspiring to steal Georgia's electoral votes for the 2020 election. "Sprawling" is the favorite adjective applied to her case, which uses the state's Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, or RICO. Such laws were originally written to deal with the Mafia and other organized crime syndicates, and typically allow prosecutors "to pull an array of conduct" into their charges, Devan Cole at CNN explains, by painting a picture of a criminal conspiracy for a jury. It allows prosecutors to take down a mob boss, for instance, instead of just the guys who follow orders. 

"RICO is a tool that allows a prosecutor's office and law enforcement to tell the whole story," Willis explained when announcing the charges. She's used the RICO law in an array of cases, from shutting down traditional gang activity to prosecuting teachers who conspired in a public school cheating scandal. 

Unsurprisingly, Republicans are reacting to these charges with maximum dishonesty. Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is allegedly challenging Trump in the GOP presidential primary, protested that these indictments show "the legal system being weaponized against political opponents." That statement requires pointedly ignoring the fact that most of the people who have testified against Trump are Republicans. 

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Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who also claims to be running against Trump, complained that all this amounts to the "criminalization of politics." RICO "was really designed to be able to go after organized crime, not necessarily to go after political activity," he said. 

Former New York mayor and indicted co-conspirator Rudy Giuliani, along with Newsmax host Eric Bolling, offered a more pickle-brained version of the same argument Tuesday. Bolling read out a list of mobsters who have been convicted under RICO: "Fat Tony Salerno from the Genovese crime family; Tony Ducks, Lucchese family; Carmine 'Junior' Persico, Colombos; Paul Castellano, the boss of the powerful Gambinos."

Giuliani responded, "This is a ridiculous application of the racketeering statute. There's probably no one that knows it better than I do." He certainly once did, decades ago as a federal prosecutor who put away lots of New York mobsters. 

It's true that the list of 19 names Willis read out Monday night  — "Jenna Ellis, "Sidney Powell," "Robert Cheeley" — sounded more like the membership roster at a tony suburban golf club than like characters on "The Sopranos." DeSantis and Giuliani are clearly leaning into stereotypes that frame "organized crime" as something that cannot possibly involve upper-crust white folks with Anglo-Saxon roots. Once upon a time, Rudy Giuliani decried "the unfair stereotype" that equated Italian-Americans with mobsters. 

Willis is charging all these people with "organized crime" because, well, they conspired with each other to commit a big crime, which happened to be stealing the presidential election in Georgia.

But what makes someone a part of a crime syndicate is their behavior, not the number of natural blondes in your 23andMe profile. If you actually reads Willis' indictment, or even a decent summary, it becomes clear that she's charging these people with "organized crime" because, well, they conspired with each other to commit a big crime, which is pretty much the definition. Yeah, the specific crime they tried to commit was stealing the Georgia election and, yeah, that was a "political" act. But in the eyes of the law, that's about the same as saying that bank robbery is a form of "entrepreneurship." Obscuring the motive by wrapping it in the flag doesn't change the facts: Breaking the law to take something that isn't yours is called stealing, and it's a crime. 

In reading Willis' indictment, what comes across clearly is that Trump and his gang act exactly like a bunch of mafiosi, either drawn from the silver screen or less glamorous real-life types. Of the 161 acts Willis documents in furtherance of a criminal conspiracy, most of them fit right into what most of us picture when we think of "racketeering": The use of threats, both overt and implied, to rope ordinary citizens into going along with the criminal gang's wishes. Giuliani understands that perfectly well because he did, indeed, prosecute RICO cases all the time. 

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It's not guys in tracksuits telling pizza joint owners to pay protection money, or else. But it was Trump and his cronies telling state and local officials to fix the election for them, or else. And Trump's "or else" was not limited to threats of political ruin. The pressure was backed up with the ever-present threat of violence: Remember "Hang Mike Pence" on Jan. 6? Do you really think they were kidding? One of the main targets of the criminal conspiracy in Georgia, Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, has had a particularly rough go: Months after the end of Trump's presidency, Raffensperger's family was still getting texts that said things like "We plan for the death of you and your family every day," or suggested that a family member was "going to have a very unfortunate incident."

Some of the other detailed incidents in the indictment are even more lurid. The harassment campaign against election workers Shaye Moss and Ruby Freeman is especially unnerving. Trump's goons got fixated on the idea that if they could scare these two women into "confessing" that they had somehow altered the vote count, that would be the magic bullet needed to overturn the election. So they concocted a scheme to intimidate them into "confessing," which Timothy Noah at the New Republic summarizes: 

[Defendant Trevian] Kutti showed up at Freeman's house at 8:30 p.m. on January 4. Freeman agreed to meet with Kutti but, given the threats she'd received, asked a police officer to attend. According to the indictment, Kutti tried to get her to confess to ballot fraud. According to a police report quoted by Reuters, Kutti said she'd been sent "by a high-profile individual" and that, because of the election, Freeman was in danger and had just 48 hours to "get ahead of the issue" before someone she wouldn't name showed up at her home. The police officer suggested they move their conversation to the police station, which they did, with Floyd joining on speakerphone. "You are a loose end," Kutti told Freeman, "for a party that needs to tidy up." Kutti denied to Reuters that she pressured Freeman to falsely admit fraud, and Floyd told Reuters they were merely trying to cut an immunity deal for Freeman, but of course to do that Freeman had to be guilty of something, which she wasn't.

It really is not much different than, "Nice pizza parlor you got, be a shame if something happened to it." 

The indictment even has a heist subplot, in the curious case of the hacked voting machines of Coffee County, Georgia. Anna Bower at Lawfare describes it:

Cathy Latham, a public school teacher and chairwoman of the Coffee County GOP, escorts the group inside. There, they are welcomed by two local elections officials, Misty Hampton and Eric Chaney, and a former member of the elections board, Ed Voyles.

Video surveillance detailed in the litigation shows what happens next: Over the course of several hours, the forensics team handles, scans, and copies the state's most sensitive voting software and equipment. All of this takes place without authorization from any court of law. The elections board will later claim it did not authorize the entry or copying, which the Georgia secretary of state's office has referred to as "unauthorized access to the equipment that former Coffee County election officials allowed in violation of state law."

In the "life imitating art" department, that falls a bit short of "Ocean's 11." But indisputably, that's some straight up gangster activity. Maybe it would help if Trump and his co-conspirators were gifted with a tabloid-ready name for their crime syndicate. The "MAGA Mafia" comes to mind. Or perhaps the "Boat Shoe Coup." Or the "Five-Iron Cartel"?

Or maybe they should just be called the "Grand Old Party," because that's the organization Trump has conquered, corrupted and converted into his organized crime enterprise. That's why it's so aggravating to hear Republicans disingenuously accuse Democrats of "criminalizing politics." Oh, hell no. Donald Trump did that, when he made it clear that being a loyal Republican means being ready and willing to commit crimes for the boss, or at least to dishonor yourself by pretending you were looking the other way and didn't see anything.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Commentary Crime Donald Trump Fani Willis Indictment Media Republicans Rudy Giuliani