Five takeaways from FBI hearing

FBI Director James Comey on Thursday endured four-and-a-half grueling hours of questioning at the hands of GOP lawmakers determined to get him to say that Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonTrump rips Krugman, NYT after columnist writes GOP no longer believes in American values Klobuchar jokes to Cuomo: 'I feel you creeping over my shoulder' but 'not in a Trumpian manner' Dems seek to rein in calls for impeachment MORE either lied or broke the law.

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While Democrats tried to run defense for Comey, alternately accusing Republicans of hypocrisy and political theater, majority members of the House Oversight Committee put the FBI director through his paces on Clinton’s motives.

Some were tougher than others, reflecting a growing consensus that there are political risks to attacking the longtime Republican director.

Here are the biggest takeaways from Thursday’s hearing.

Republicans are primed for a perjury probe

House Oversight Committee Chairman Jason ChaffetzJason ChaffetzLawmakers contemplate a tough political sell: Raising their pay Top Utah paper knocks Chaffetz as he mulls run for governor: ‘His political career should be over’ Boehner working on memoir: report MORE (R-Utah) appeared to signal a new chapter in the saga with his initial line of questioning.

Chaffetz pressed Comey on whether Clinton told the truth to the FBI during an interview at the bureau's Washington headquarters last weekend, the culmination of its yearlong investigation of the private email setup she used while serving as secretary of State.

After Comey said he had no reason to think that Clinton had lied to the FBI, Chaffetz pivoted to whether Clinton had lied to Congress.

He asked whether the FBI had investigated whether Clinton perjured herself during her testimony to the Select Committee on Benghazi last fall, when she insisted her emails were not classified at the time she sent or received them. Comey earlier this week said some emails found by the FBI included classified markings.

The FBI director said investigators had not looked at the transcript of Clinton’s testimony and that they would need to receive a referral from Congress to do so.

“You’ll have one,” Chaffetz shot back. “You’ll have one in the next few hours.”

The FBI is not obligated to open an investigation based on a referral from Congress, former Justice Department prosecutors told The Hill.

But there could be intense pressure on the FBI to look into the allegations, a potential felony. And it would create another difficult decision for Comey and possibly Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

GOP to play up Clinton double standard

For the most part, Republicans refrained from outright allegations that Comey caved to political pressure.

But several leading members warned that he was allowing the justice system to be bullied by powerful people, when lower-level officials might be subject to a different standard.

“There is a legitimate concern that there is a double standard,” Chaffetz said.

“If your name isn’t Clinton or you’re not part of the powerful elite, Lady Justice will act differently.”

Rep. Trey GowdyHarold (Trey) Watson GowdyHouse Dem calls on lawmakers to 'insulate' election process following Mueller report Democrats put harassment allegations against Trump on back burner Democrats seize on Mueller-Barr friction MORE (R-S.C.) echoed Chaffetz, referring to a “double-track justice system.”

“If you are a private in the Army and you email yourself classified information, you will be kicked out. But if you are Hillary Clinton and you seek a promotion to commander in chief, you will not be,” Gowdy said. Clinton is her party's presumptive presidential nominee.

It’s a familiar line of attack for Republicans, who have long accused Bill and Hillary Clinton of getting away with criminal behavior since the former president and first lady escaped criminal charges in the Whitewater real estate investigation.

But Comey pushed back, arguing that the FBI’s decision had nothing to do with Clinton’s political clout — only that the agency found insufficient evidence to establish her intent to commit a crime.

“I understand why people are confused by the whole discussion. I get that,” Comey said. “But you know what would be a double standard? If she were prosecuted for gross negligence.”

“That would be celebrity-hunting. That would be treating this person differently than John Doe.”

GOP runs risk in taking on FBI director

Republicans walked a fine line in criticizing Comey, when days before many had praised him as the paragon of an apolitical lawman.

Many tried to paint their hardball questions as “confusion” rather than an attack on Comey’s integrity.

“I have defended your integrity, every step of the way. I stand by that. But I am mystified and I am confused because you listen to your fact pattern and come to the conclusion that there is no consequence,” Chaffetz said. “I don't know how to explain that.”

Democrats were quick to use allegations of hypocrisy as a weapon against the GOP.

“Amazingly, amazingly, some Republicans who were praising you just days ago for your independence, for your integrity, and your honesty, instantly turned against you because your recommendation conflicted with the predetermined outcome they wanted,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said.

The sentiment that Republicans need to tread lightly in their criticism of Comey’s decision played out beyond the Oversight hearing room.

With Comey’s testimony still underway, Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) went on MSNBC to call it a “mistake” for Republicans to attack the FBI director.

“I think it's a mistake for Republicans to somehow think that Comey was in on a fix or he was rigging something. He is really of unimpeachable integrity,” King said, describing the longtime Republican director as "a total straight shooter.”

Clinton defense hinges on capital C's

Standard government practice is to mark emails containing sensitive information at the top of the message or in the subject line to indicate that the contents are classified.

But in three emails containing restricted information that flowed through Clinton’s personal server, those markings — an uppercase C in parentheses — were located in the body of the email. Those paragraphs were designated as confidential, the lowest level of classification.

According to Comey, “it’s possible — possible — that she didn’t know what a C meant when she saw it in the body of an email like that.”

“It’s an interesting question whether she ... was actually sophisticated enough to understand what a C in [parentheses] means,” Comey said.

Comey undercuts Petraeus as GOP argument

In arguing for a tough punishment for Clinton, Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpRussia's election interference is a problem for the GOP Pence to pitch trade deal during trip to Michigan: report Iran oil minister: US made 'bad mistake' in ending sanctions waivers MORE and other Republicans have at times argued that former CIA Director David Petraeus was punished for far lesser infractions than those Clinton committed.

Petraeus was convicted of a misdemeanor for leaking classified material to his biographer, with whom he had a romantic relationship.

Comey on Thursday took on that argument directly and appeared to crush it.

Unlike Clinton, Petraeus was caught on tape telling Paula Broadwell about the “code word” and “highly classified” material he slipped to her. The former CIA head also hid documents in his personal desk and lied about them during the federal investigation.

The Petraeus matter “is the perfect illustration of the kind of cases that get prosecuted,” Comey told lawmakers. “In my mind, it illustrates perfectly the distinction between this case.”