Steven H. Sadow, the lead lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump in his Georgia criminal case, has been praised by the Atlanta rapper T.I. — one of Mr. Sadow’s former clients — as “probably the best criminal defense attorney of his time,” a man with “a slight hint of genius.”
If so, much of that genius has remained bottled up since Mr. Trump’s indictment in Georgia over the summer. Mr. Sadow, a heavyweight in the Atlanta legal world who specializes in representing what he calls “high profile individuals,” has so far kept a low profile in the state election interference case, largely piggybacking on briefings from other lawyers representing Mr. Trump’s co-defendants.
Mr. Sadow has only rarely spoken publicly about the case. And at a number of related court hearings, he has shown up alone, in his trademark cowboy boots, observing the proceedings from the courtroom gallery.
His minimalist approach stands in marked contrast to those of other, more voluble lawyers that Mr. Trump has retained around the country to deal with his legal problems. It has also lent a certain dramatic tension to the Georgia case. He is like a featured soloist in a band who has yet to really play.
The quiet period may soon be coming to an end. This week, Mr. Sadow filed a motion arguing that before any trial, the Georgia courts should weigh whether the 13 felony charges against Mr. Trump should be thrown out because his claims about voting fraud after he lost the 2020 election were protected by the First Amendment.
And on Friday, Mr. Sadow is expected to make his first significant court appearance in the case, to argue that Mr. Trump should be granted access to evidence gathered by federal prosecutors in his separate election interference case in Washington.
The hearing could provide early hints of Mr. Sadow’s long-game strategy, and how he might incorporate lessons learned over decades of defending a colorful roster of clients including rappers and the occasional tabloid demi-celebrity.
“This is an enormously creative guy who will design a defense based on all the tools at his disposal,” said Arthur W. Leach, a former assistant U.S. attorney who has faced off against Mr. Sadow.
Like Mr. Trump’s lawyers in his other pending criminal cases, Mr. Sadow is trying not only to win exoneration for his client, but also to delay. Prosecutors have proposed an August start date for the Georgia trial, but Mr. Trump would probably prefer that it be pushed beyond next fall’s presidential election, in which he is a candidate.
The indictment accuses the former president and 14 allies of conspiring to overturn Mr. Trump’s 2020 loss in Georgia; four other defendants have pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.
Mr. Sadow, 69, declined an interview request. He has previously let it be known that he is not a Trump supporter. He took over as Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer on the day of the former president’s voluntary surrender in August, replacing Drew Findling, known as the Billion Dollar Lawyer for his work defending prominent hip-hop artists.
Mr. Sadow’s friends say that he most likely took the case for the challenge, as well as for the money. Mr. Findling’s firm was paid at least $816,000 for about a year’s worth of work, according to public records.
Legal experts say that Mr. Sadow’s understated approach is a calculated strategy.
He has probably been watching the moves of other defendants’ lawyers to see which approaches fare best with Judge Scott McAfee of Fulton County Superior Court, who is relatively new to the bench. Mr. Sadow has occasionally joked to reporters that there was no reason he should write his own briefs when other lawyers who happen to be great writers have already done good work.
Mr. Sadow may be trying not to put anything on paper that could inadvertently help Jack Smith, the prosecutor in the separate federal election interference case against Mr. Trump, which is scheduled to go to trial in Washington in March.
“I don’t think anybody on Trump’s legal team in Georgia wants to do anything that will remotely rock the boat in D.C., ” said Anthony Michael Kreis, a law professor at Georgia State University.
In courtrooms in Atlanta and beyond, Mr. Sadow has shown an aptitude for aggressive cross-examination and thinking on his feet.
Christian Fletcher, a client of Mr. Sadow’s who was acquitted in a major health care fraud case in March, said Mr. Sadow’s real strength was his feel for people, and for how jurors think. “It’s like he downloads who you are as a person,” he said, “and what moves you.”
In an online interview with his client T.I., the rapper, Mr. Sadow said he did his own legal research because “I don’t think anybody else can do it better than me.” He also said he had been called to the profession to curb the excesses of government power.
“People need to be looked after and protected,” he told the performer. “They’ve got to be protected against the government” — because, he said using saltier language than can be printed here, the government does not care about most people.”
In addition to T.I., who was pleased with the plea deal and the one-year prison sentence that Mr. Sadow helped him secure when he faced a federal gun charge, he has represented the rappers Gunna and Rick Ross, who occasionally name-drops Mr. Sadow in his lyric.
“Indictment on the way, got Sadow on the case,” he rapped on his 2019 song “Turnpike Ike.”
In 2000, Mr. Sadow obtained an acquittal for Joseph Sweeting, who had been charged in the stabbing deaths of two men after a Super Bowl party in Atlanta. The case earned national attention because Ray Lewis, the Baltimore Ravens football star, had also been charged; Mr. Lewis reached a plea agreement with prosecutors.
Mr. Sadow also represented Steven E. Kaplan, the owner of a notorious Atlanta strip club called the Gold Club, which was targeted by federal prosectors who claimed it had mob connections and allowed prostitution. Mr. Sadow called it a “very good deal” when Mr. Kaplan, who had been facing decades in prison, pleaded guilty to a racketeering charge in 2001, receiving a 16 month sentence and a $5 million fine.
What those successes will bring to bear on Mr. Trump’s case is hard to say. Mr. Sadow faces the uphill task of winning over a jury in Fulton County, where President Biden won 73 percent of the vote in 2020. A number of legal experts following the case expect Mr. Sadow to file a motion soon arguing that Mr. Trump should be immune from the Georgia charges because he was the president. Mr. Trump’s lawyers in the Washington case have filed a similar motion that many experts say is unlikely to succeed.
Mr. Sadow grew up in Ohio and moved to Atlanta in the 1970s to attend Emory Law School. Even back then, said Martin Salzman, a lawyer and a former classmate, he excelled at thinking up alternate theories for a case.
“I said, ‘You just think like a criminal — that’s why you like criminal law,’” Mr. Salzman recalled, chuckling. “He really comes up with theories that most other people just don’t, in order to bring up a reasonable doubt.”