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The downing of a U.S. president

We’ve seen this movie before.

It would seem but a matter of time before the president of the United States is asked a question under oath and gives a false answer. A lie, in other words. In the prequel, starring Bill Clinton, impeachment followed.

When the FBI, after a referral from special counsel Robert Mueller, raided the offices and hotel room of Trump attorney Michael Cohen, the thud of the other shoe dropping sent ripples along Pennsylvania Avenue, down the National Mall and over the Potomac River into Northern Virginia, where more than a few veterans of earlier political wars likely grimaced at what could come next.

No one should feel good about what’s happening now.

This isn’t to say that the raid wasn’t necessary or proper — it was ordered not by Mueller but by the office of the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. But it shows that we’ve reached a point that apparently made it necessary. The timing, given world affairs, couldn’t be worse.

As President Trump himself pointed out amid lamentations of a witch hunt, “We’re talking about a lot of serious things.” Indeed, we are, especially as concerns the dire humanitarian situation in Syria, where President Bashar Assad reportedly executed a chemical attack on civilians, including children, near Damascus.

Trump is caught in a double bind with potentially disastrous consequences either way. To not take military action, as he has said he would, risks being seen as weak or indecisive.

Remember Barack Obama’s flimsy red line. To engage Syria militarily risks everything else, further worsening relations with Russia, which vowed last month to retaliate against the U.S. should it attack Assad’s forces, within which Russian troops are embedded.

Closer to home, Trump risks the plausible perception, given history and his often-impulsive decision-making process, that he would strike to create a distraction from the personal chaos surrounding him. Back to the prequel, you’ll recall Clinton’s 1998 missile strikes in Sudan, where a pharmaceutical factory was destroyed, as well as simultaneous strikes in Afghanistan.

According to U.S. intelligence, the Sudan facility was part of Osama bin Laden’s empire and was believed to be a chemical weapons site, which turned out not to be so.

Thusly was born the wag-the-dog theory that Clinton was creating a distraction from his tortures at the hands of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, who was investigating the president’s alleged relations with Monica Lewinsky.

According to the Clinton administration, there was only a small window of time when the missiles could be launched effectively, which just happened to be on the very same day of Lewinsky’s appearance before Starr’s grand jury. Wrote Christopher Hitchens at the time: “What was the hurry? ... Clinton needed to look ‘presidential’ for a day.”

Recall, too, that Starr’s original mandate was to investigate an allegedly questionable land deal in Arkansas known as “Whitewater.” But, well, one thing led to another, and you know the rest. Sexual relations did take place in the Oval Office, but Whitewater was a bust. And the 9/11 Commission concluded that the rationale for the bombings had been credible given information at the time. My, but history does seem to enjoy repeating itself.

As for the alleged Mueller “break-in” — Trump’s characterization — the perps were FBI investigators, not burglars, who came equipped with a warrant approved by a judge. Also, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein personally approved the raid, even though he wasn’t required to do so.

Of this much one can be fairly certain: the agents knew what they were after and were convinced that Cohen wouldn’t voluntarily hand it over. Whether Cohen’s $130,000 payment to the porn actress “Stormy Daniels” can be shown to have been an illegal “campaign donation”- or that he violated banking laws — remains to be seen. But he’s now in the grip of the Justice Department — and possibly Mueller — and soon it could behoove Cohen to become a witness in the special investigation.

It has been observed that most movies end with a repetition or variation of the opening scene. Increasingly, this plot seems to be foreshadowing a day when President Trump, exposed and possibly impeached, is shown going back up the down escalator — alone, perhaps, but glad to be home.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group.

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