Far from elucidating his position, Mr. McConnell has adopted a sphinx-like silence in public. As late as Tuesday morning, according to Republicans briefed on the conversations, his own aides were uncertain how he planned to vote on Mr. Paul’s motion. He has declined to explain his vote, telling reporters on Wednesday that as a juror in the coming proceeding, he planned to keep an open mind.
“Well, the trial hasn’t started yet,” he said. “And I intend to participate in that and listen to the evidence.”
His advisers declined to speculate on his thinking.
Mr. McConnell remains eager to move beyond Mr. Trump. While his House counterpart, Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, was set to meet Mr. Trump on Thursday in an effort to repair his relationship with the former president, the Senate leader gladly told reporters he had not spoken to Mr. Trump since Dec. 15, after Mr. McConnell congratulated Mr. Biden as the president-elect. He has told allies he hopes never to talk to Mr. Trump again.
Yet his public silence has left even some of the most loyal members of his conference flummoxed.
Senator Kevin Cramer of North Dakota, who said last week that Mr. McConnell had told him to vote his conscience on matters of impeachment, ticked through a series of possible explanations for the leader’s vote on Wednesday.
“Maybe this is one of those votes that you can be a reflection of your conference, and clearly he does that a lot,” he said of Mr. McConnell. “Our conference was pretty overwhelming in its support.”
The vote clearly bewildered some Democrats, some of whom questioned whether it was even worth the effort — or the costs to Mr. Biden — to spend time on an impeachment trial destined once again for acquittal. Senators Tim Kaine, Democrat of Virginia, and Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, floated a bipartisan censure of Mr. Trump in lieu of a trial, setting off a flurry of debate over the topic.
“To do a trial knowing you’ll get 55 votes at the max seems to me to be not the right prioritization of our time,” Mr. Kaine lamented.