WASHINGTON — Three times in recent weeks, as Republicans grappled with a deadly attack on the Capitol and their new minority status in Washington, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky carefully nudged open the door for his party to kick Donald J. Trump to the curb, only to find it slammed shut.
So his decision on Tuesday to join all but five Republican senators in voting to toss out the House’s impeachment case against Mr. Trump as unconstitutional seemed to be less a reversal than a recognition that the critical mass of his party was not ready to join him in cutting loose the former president. Far from repudiating Mr. Trump, as it appeared they might in the days after the Jan. 6 rampage at the Capitol, Republicans have reverted to the posture they adopted when he was in office — unwilling to cross a figure who continues to hold outsize sway in their party.
“Anybody surprised by that vote wasn’t paying attention before yesterday,” said Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, a close ally of the Republican leader.
For Mr. McConnell, a leader who derives his power in large part from his ability to keep Republicans unified, defying the will of his members would have been a momentous risk, putting his own post in peril and courting the ire of the far right.
But in a series of discreet forays, the stoic 78-year-old had tried to nudge senators toward a different outcome.
He made clear to associates after the Jan. 6 attack that he viewed Mr. Trump’s actions around the riot as impeachable and saw a Senate trial as an opportunity to purge him from the party, prompting an article in The New York Times that his office notably did not challenge. In a letter to colleagues, Mr. McConnell signaled he was open to conviction, a stark departure from a year before when he had declared that he was not an “impartial juror” in Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial and guided him to acquittal.
And then last week, in a speech on the Senate floor, Mr. McConnell flatly said the president had “provoked” the mob that sent the vice president and lawmakers fleeing as it violently stormed the Capitol, trying to stop Congress from formalizing his election loss.
They were striking moves for Mr. McConnell, who for four years consistently supported and enabled Mr. Trump, including backing his refusal to concede the election for more than a month after Joseph R. Biden Jr. was declared the winner. Mr. Trump spent that period spreading the false claims of voter fraud that fueled the Jan. 6 rampage.
But in the wake of the mob assault and a pair of Senate losses in Georgia, Mr. McConnell had come to view the former president as a dangerous political liability and saw an opening to marginalize Mr. Trump. He may have brought exceptionally energetic new voters into the Republican fold, Mr. McConnell and his advisers believed, but Mr. Trump’s excesses and personality had driven women and suburban voters away, and with them control of the House, the Senate and the White House in just a few short years. And after the Capitol riot, his actions had also put at risk the backing of donors and corporate groups that power the party’s campaigns.
Still, the always-restrained Kentuckian never mounted a campaign to persuade other Republicans to join him, knowing how difficult it would be for his party to break from someone who polls indicate that half of its voters believe should remain their leader. If all senators were voting, it would take 17 Republicans joining every Democrat to convict Mr. Trump, something that seemed all but unthinkable after Tuesday’s vote.
In the week since Mr. Trump skipped President Biden’s inauguration and decamped to his private club in Florida, it had become increasingly clear that his departure from the Oval Office had done little, if anything, to loosen his grip on rank-and-file Republicans in Congress.
While few have defended his conduct, many fewer have dared to back the impeachment push. The 10 House Republicans who did join Democrats in voting to impeach him faced fierce backlash, and in the Senate, constituents were flooding offices with phone calls indicating they expected their senators to stand behind Mr. Trump.
“Let’s face it: Many of the people there — they want to be re-elected, most of them,” said Bob Corker, a former Republican senator from Tennessee who retired in 2018 after clashing with Mr. Trump. “For those people, whose service in the Senate is their entire life, I’m sure just what they are hearing back home has an effect on them.”
When Senator Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, raised an objection to Mr. Trump’s trial, arguing that trying a former president would be unconstitutional, 45 of the 50 Republicans in the Senate — including Mr. McConnell — supported his challenge.
By Wednesday, the Republican Party stated an official position against holding Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial.
“Not only is this impeachment trial a distraction from the important issues Americans want Congress focused on, it is unconstitutional, and I join the vast majority of Senate Republicans in opposing it,” said Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman.
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.
But Democratic leaders were adamant they would move forward on Feb. 9 as planned with oral arguments. And even Republicans theoretically in favor of a reprimand like censure conceded it was most likely unworkable, at least for now. Ms. Collins raised it with Mr. McConnell directly anyway, people familiar with the exchange said.
“No one will be able to avert their gaze from what Mr. Trump said and did, and the consequences of his actions,” said Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader. “We will pass judgment, as our solemn duty under the Constitution demands. And in turn, we will all be judged on how we respond.”
Emily Cochrane and Luke Broadwater contributed reporting.
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