Who is Alina Habba? Defense attorney is Trump’s voice in and out of court

Things weren’t going well for Donald Trump’s lawyers in the former president’s civil fraud trial.

Trump had just concluded a day of testimony that he had peppered with caustic attacks on Judge Arthur Engoron, and his attorneys were struggling to seek guidance from the judge about moving for a mistrial based on the conduct of his clerk — a touchy subject that Engoron had barred lawyers from referring in court.

“I’m directing you not to make such a motion,” Engoron said flatly.

Enter Alina Habba, playing peacemaker.

“I’ll be clearer, if I may. I think they are being extremely careful, and it’s causing confusion, your Honor, so don’t sanction me. I’m doing this in the most delicate way possible,” said the attorney, who only hours earlier had blasted the judge to reporters on the steps of the courthouse as being “unhinged.”

“I think this is fair, and I understand your concerns. You can make that motion, Ms. Habba,” responded Engoron — who also apologized for yelling at her earlier in the day.

Even though Engoron ultimately denied Trump’s request for a mistrial, the exchange illustrates the often-contradictory role that Habba has undertaken, acting as both the former president’s unabashed defender and an occasional peacemaker in his $250 million fraud trial — a position he has quickly adopted after rising to fame following several years in private practice in New Jersey.

‘The most ethical Americans I know’

After working as a merchandiser at fashion company Marc Jacobs for two years, Habba attended Widener University Commonwealth Law School in Pennsylvania, graduating in 2011. She served a yearlong clerkship with then-New Jersey Superior Court Judge Eugene Codey Jr. then worked in private practice for eight years at two separate firms before starting her own practice in 2020, focusing on civil and commercial litigation.

PHOTO: Former President Donald Trump and attorney Alina Habba attend the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in New York City, Nov 6, 2023.

Former President Donald Trump and attorney Alina Habba attend the Trump Organization civil fraud trial, in New York State Supreme Court in New York City, Nov 6, 2023.

Brendan McDermid/Reuters

After reportedly becoming acquainted with Trump through membership in his Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club, Habba’s big break with the former president came when he represented him in a $100 million lawsuit against the New York Times and his estranged niece, Mary L. Trump.

The New York Times lawsuit was ultimately dismissed, and Habba’s other cases for Trump have resulted in a mixed record. She received praise from Trump after Summer Zervos, a former “Apprentice” contestant who accused the former president of sexual assault, dropped her defamation case against Trump.

But when Habba filed a lawsuit claiming that Hillary Clinton and others conspired to damage Trump’s reputation, the judge overseeing the case dismissed the suit, accused Trump of “using the courts to seek revenge on political adversaries,” and fined Trump and Habba nearly $1 million .

Habba has become inextricably linked to Trump’s defense by serving as his legal spokesperson on the heels of his four criminal charges, and appearing by his side every day he has attended his civil fraud trial in New York. Along the way, her firm has been paid $3.6 million from Trump’s political action committees, according to records reviewed by ABC News.

She has cited her experiences with the former president to not only defend his conduct but also his character. Appearing on Fox News after Trump was indicted for the unlawful retention of classified documents in Florida, she said of Trump, “He’s the most ethical American I know.”

‘Eye rolls and constant whispering’

In Trump’s fraud trial, Habba served multiple roles as Trump’s legal spokesperson and as a lawyer for former Trump employees Allen Weisselberg and Jeffrey McConney, who were also defendants in the case.

Apart from her opening statement, in which she referenced representing Weisselberg and McConney, Habba appears to mainly speak on behalf of the former president. While Clifford Robert, a lawyer for Eric Trump and Donald Trump Jr., often asks witnesses specific questions about the conduct of Trump’s adult sons, Habba often appears focused on the actions of the former president.

“She was going to work, get Trump, and go home,” Habba said in her forceful opening statement about the alleged political motivation of New York Attorney General Letitia James.

When the former president was barred by Judge Engoron from mentioning Engoron’s clerk, Habba and Trump attorney Chris Kise began raising issues with the clerk, citing a “perception of bias” against their client.

“It is incredibly distracting when there are eye rolls and constant whispering on the bench,” Habba told Engoron before the cross-examination of former Trump attorney Michael Cohen, as Trump sat nearby.

PHOTO: Lawyer Alina Habba speaks to the media outside the New York Supreme Court, Nov.  6, 2023, in New York.

Lawyer Alina Habba speaks to the media outside the New York Supreme Court, Nov. 6, 2023, in New York.

Stefan Jeremiah/AP

Habba similarly spoke for Trump when the former president took the stand in his own civil trial and, like any other witness, was barred from discussing the case during his testimony. During a break in Trump’s testimony, Habba exited the court to address the media in lieu of the former president.

“What I’m seeing is such a demise of the American judicial system,” Habba said outside court.

Habba’s arguments paid off earlier this month when an appeals court temporarily lifted the limited gag order that Judge Engoron had issued against making comments about his staff.

“Miss James is continuing to disparage my clients and disparage children and defendants who have not been proven guilty of a million things… so this is how free speech works,” Habba said outside court following the victory.

‘I didn’t forget to check the box’

Habba’s ardent defense of the former president has made him a frequent target of criticism, including multiple threats according to Habba. Some of that criticism involves the question of how Trump ended up without a jury trial.

Habba, in her opening statement, criticized the proceedings on the grounds that Trump should have been entitled to a trial by jury. Engoron responded by noting that no one asked for a jury trial, fueling speculation that Habba and Trump’s other attorneys had simply forgotten to check a box on a form to make that request.

That speculation grew so rampant that Engoron decided to directly address the issue a week later.

“We are having a non-jury trial because we are hearing a non-jury case,” Engoron said, adding that he would have productively rejected any effort to get a jury trial. “Nobody forgot to check off a box.”

“I would like to say thank you, your honor,” Habba responded, acknowledging the controversy of the issue. “Press, did you hear that? I didn’t forget to check the box.”

‘You’re here with me’

During the presentation of the state’s case, Habba led the defense’s cross-examination of Trump’s former attorney Michael Cohen, who served jail time after pleading guilty in 2018 to offenses that included his role in the Stormy Daniels hush money payoff. Over two days, as Trump sat in the courtroom watching, Habba grilled Cohen to the point where Cohen, on several occasions, tried to raise his own objections to the questions.

“Mr. Cohen, here’s how this is going to work. You’re not on Mea Culpa. You’re not on your podcast and you’re not on CNN. You’re here with me,” Habba said to Cohen at one point.

Under Habba’s questioning, Cohen said that he had previously committed perjury — transforming Habba into a real-life Perry Mason in the eyes of his client.

“He was caught lying like no one has ever lied. It was better than a Perry Mason moment, and that should be the end of the case,” Trump told reporters afterward.

At another point, Habba had Cohen recite his 2018 sentencing transcript where he pleaded guilty to multiple felonies, after which he read into the record several old news articles in which Cohen praised his former boss.

Habba appeared to enjoy the exchange, even opting to continue the cross-examination when offered a break by the judge.

“Your Honor, if it’s entertaining, I’m happy to go all night,” Habba said.

ABC News’ Soo Rin Kim contributed to this report.