NEW YORK — On a late January afternoon, two senior prosecutors stood before the new Manhattan district attorney, hoping to persuade him to criminally charge the former president of the United States.

The prosecutors, Mark Pomerantz and Carey Dunne, detailed their strategy for proving that Donald Trump knew his annual financial statements were works of fiction. Time was running out: The grand jury hearing evidence against Trump was set to expire in the spring. They needed the district attorney, Alvin Bragg, to decide whether to seek charges.

But Bragg and his senior aides, masked and gathered around a conference table on the eighth floor of the district attorney’s office in lower Manhattan, had serious doubts. They hammered Pomerantz and Dunne about whether they could show that Trump had intended to break the law by inflating the value of his assets in the annual statements, a necessary element to prove the case.

The questioning was so intense that as the meeting ended, Dunne, exasperated, used a lawyerly expression that normally refers to a judge’s fiery questioning:

“Wow, this was a really hot bench,” Dunne said, according to people with knowledge of the meeting. “What I’m hearing is you have great concerns.”

The meeting, on Jan. 24, started a series of events that brought the investigation of Trump to a sudden halt, and late last month prompted Pomerantz and Dunne to resign. It also represented a drastic shift: Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., had deliberated for months before deciding to move toward an indictment of Trump. Bragg, not two months into his tenure, reversed that decision.

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Bragg has maintained that the three-year inquiry is continuing. But the reversal, for now, has eliminated one of the gravest legal threats facing the former president.

This account of the investigation’s unraveling, drawn from interviews with more than a dozen people knowledgeable about the events, pulls back a curtain on one of the most consequential prosecutorial decisions in U.S. history. Had the district attorney’s office secured an indictment, Trump would have been the first current or former president to be criminally charged.

Bragg was not the only one to question the strength of the case, the interviews show. Late last year, three career prosecutors in the district attorney’s office opted to leave the investigation, uncomfortable with the speed at which it was proceeding and with what they maintained were gaps in the evidence.

Bragg, whose office is conducting the investigation along with lawyers working for New York Attorney General Letitia James, had not taken issue with Dunne and Pomerantz presenting evidence to the grand jury in his first days as district attorney. But as the weeks passed, he developed concerns about the challenge of showing Trump’s intent — a requirement for proving that he criminally falsified his business records — and about the risks of relying on the former president’s onetime fixer, Michael Cohen, as a key witness.

Cohen’s testimony, the prosecutors leading the investigation argued, could help to establish that Trump was intentionally misleading when he exaggerated the value of his properties. The financial statements Trump submitted to banks to secure loans — documents that say “Donald J. Trump is responsible for the preparation and fair presentation” of the valuations — could also support a case.

Bragg was not persuaded. Once he told Pomerantz and Dunne that he was not prepared to authorize charges, they resigned. Explaining the resignation to his team of prosecutors in a meeting a day later, Dunne said he felt he needed “to disassociate myself with this decision because I think it was on the wrong side of history.”

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Bragg has told aides that the inquiry could move forward if a new piece of evidence is unearthed, or if a Trump Organization insider decides to turn on Trump. Other prosecutors in the office saw that as fanciful.

Trump has long denied wrongdoing and has accused Bragg and James, both of whom are Democrats and Black, of carrying out a politically motivated “witch hunt” and being “racists.”

Danielle Filson, a spokesperson for Bragg, said the investigation into Trump was continuing under new leadership.

Pomerantz and Dunne declined to comment.

The brain trust

Vance and his top deputies were riding high last summer.

They had just announced criminal tax charges against Trump’s family business and his longtime finance chief, Allen Weisselberg. The next step for Dunne, Pomerantz and their team was to build a case against Trump himself.

By the fall, a number of the prosecutors assigned to the investigation thought it was likely that Trump had broken the law. Proving it would be another matter.

Concern among the office’s career prosecutors about the investigation into the former president came to a head in September at a meeting they sought with Dunne. Dunne offered to have them work only on the pending trial of Weisselberg or leave the Trump team altogether.

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Two prosecutors eventually took him up on the latter.

Vance pressed on, and in early November, convened a new special grand jury to start hearing evidence against the former president. Still, he had yet to decide whether to direct the prosecutors to begin a formal grand jury presentation with the goal of seeking charges. As his tenure drew to a close in December, he consulted a group of prominent outside lawyers to help inform what would be his final decision.

The group was referred to internally as “the brain trust” — a handful of former prosecutors that included two senior members of Robert Mueller’s special counsel inquiry into Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Before they all convened for a meeting on Dec. 9, Dunne and Pomerantz circulated hypothetical opening arguments in advance: one for the prosecution, another for the defense.

The deliberations led prosecutors to simplify the charges they planned to seek to make it easier to win a conviction, and Vance was soon persuaded. Three days later, Dunne sent the team an email announcing that they would proceed. The plan, he said, was to seek charges from the panel in the spring.

Most of the remaining career prosecutors were on board. But that week, a third prosecutor left the investigation into Trump.

‘Time is of the essence’

With Vance about to leave office, the investigators’ attention turned to their future boss.

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Bragg first got involved in the district attorney’s criminal investigation in the final days of last year. He and his top deputies met with Pomerantz and Dunne over the holidays, appearing eager to get up to speed.

Bragg’s first priority upon taking office was adopting a new set of policies that essentially reduced the list of crimes for which he would seek jail time. The decision, announced internally in a Jan. 3 memo, prompted a fierce backlash from law enforcement, elected officials and some members of the public.

Dunne emailed Bragg and his team that day, emphasizing the need to make a decision about the Trump case within two weeks. “Time is of the essence,” Dunne wrote.

Bragg signaled a strong interest in the investigation and committed to adding two prosecutors to the team.

When they met again Jan. 11 to focus on Trump’s financial statements, Bragg’s team asked a number of questions and offered suggestions for how to present a case against Trump to a jury.

Dunne and Pomerantz then resumed their grand jury presentation, questioning Trump’s longtime accountant from Mazars USA on Jan. 19 and a real estate valuation expert the next day.

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Around that time, Weisselberg’s lawyers filed legal papers seeking to dismiss the earlier indictment, a routine filing that nevertheless appeared to raise alarms for Bragg and his team about using Cohen to prosecute Trump. The papers took aim at Cohen, claiming that he was pursuing a “vendetta” against Weisselberg as revenge for the accountant’s having testified against him before a federal grand jury in the hush-money case.

It was the next day, Jan. 24, that Pomerantz and Dunne faced the “hot bench.”

There, Bragg expressed concern about calling Cohen as a witness. He and his aides also emphasized the potential difficulty of proving that Trump had intended to break the law.

Bragg’s aides agreed that it was wise to stand down.

One decision, two resignations

Pomerantz did not take kindly to the setback. In an email soon after the Jan. 24 meeting, he threatened to resign if Bragg did not make a final decision about the future of the investigation.

He also offered to make a series of presentations about crucial issues in the case in an effort to speed up Bragg’s decision. Bragg agreed, and Pomerantz and Dunne delivered three presentations beginning early last month. After some of the meetings, Bragg’s team met behind closed doors without the two prosecutors.

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Pomerantz and Dunne had one final chance to sway Bragg in a meeting on Valentine’s Day. The topic: Which laws had Trump broken?

On the morning of Feb. 22, Bragg notified them of his decision: He did not want to continue the grand jury presentation.

Pomerantz resigned the next day. Bragg asked Dunne to stay, but within hours, he joined Pomerantz in leaving.

Dunne, however, left the door open to a possible return. If Bragg reconsidered his decision, Dunne told colleagues, he would gladly come back.