FBI Director James Comey testified on July 7 at a U.S. House of Representatives hearing on presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's decision to use a personal email server while serving as Secretary of State. (Peter Stevenson/The Washington Post)

Lawmakers on hand for FBI Director James Comey's testimony about the Clinton emails investigation all arrived with equally passionate opinions from either column A or column B:

Column A: Democrats said the FBI's integrity was being unfairly maligned in the wake of its recommendation that Hillary Clinton not be prosecuted for her use of a private email server while secretary of state.

"Despite your impeccable reputation, Republicans have turned on you with a vengeance immediately after deciding not to pursue charges." — Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney (D-N.Y.), to Comey, a Republican.

And Column B: Republicans said Clinton was getting away with a crime.

"It seems to a lot of us that the average Joe — the average American — that if they had done what you laid out in your statement, that they'd be in handcuffs." — Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah), chairman of the Republican-led House oversight committee that asked Comey to speak.

So it's safe to say minds on that side of the hearing room might not be changed by Thursday's testimony. But anyone else looking to understand the FBI's decision probably got some fresh insight, as Comey laid out his reasoning in more detail.

James Comey, director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), is sworn in at a House Oversight and Government Reform Committee meeting. (Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg News)

Here's what happened (in the first few hours, anyway):

1. Democrats came to Comey's defense

If a Republican who first served in the George W. Bush administration delivers Hill testimony, which party has his back?

If you're James Comey, it isn't the GOP.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-Md.) — the top Democrat on the oversight committee — made very clear he thinks Comey's appearance on Capitol Hill is part of a political witch hunt by Republicans to destroy Clinton's presidential hopes:

"In their eyes, you had one job and one job only: to prosecute Hillary Clinton," Cummings said. "But you refused, so now you are being summoned here to answer for your alleged transgressions."

2. Comey explained Law 101 to Congress

Comey is the rare lawyer who's very good at explaining the law in terms non-lawyers can immediately understand without running it through Google Translate's Legalese-to-English setting.  (Side note: He has also proved himself to be a riveting giver of testimony to Congress, to the extent there is such a thing.)

On Thursday, Comey dumbed things down — ironically, to a room full of lawyers (and, to be fair, viewers at home watching the feed from Capitol Hill) — to explain why his decision to prosecute Clinton all comes down to one word: intent.

"In our system of law there's a thing called mens rea. It's important to know what you did. But when you did it, this Latin phrase mens rea means: What were you thinking?" he said, waving his hands like a law professor in front of a classroom of first-year students (we assume.) "And we don't want to put people in jail that they knew they were doing something they shouldn't do."

As to how that applies to the Clinton case:

"I see evidence of great carelessness, but I do not see evidence that is sufficient to establish that Secretary Clinton or those with whom she was corresponding with ... knew when they did it they were doing something that was against the law."

FBI Director James Comey testified before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee July 7, about the recommendation that Hillary Clinton not be prosecuted for her handling of government emails on a private server. (Reuters)

3. After Law 101, the panel headed to Ethics class: Should Hillary Clinton be punished? (Discuss.)

Judging by this exchange between Chaffetz and Comey — the two key players in Thursday's hearing — your view of the answer to that question depends on where you sit.

"Did Hillary Clinton do anything wrong?" Chaffetz asked Comey.

A pause.

"What do you mean by 'wrong' ?" Comey asked.

"It's self-evident," Chaffetz said, settling back into his leather chair with a smirk, seemingly sure he was going to get Comey here.

Comey didn't take the bait.

"Well, I'm a lawyer, I'm an investigator, I hope I'm a normal human being," Comey started to say.

Chaffetz interrupted him: "Do you really believe there should be no consequence for Hillary Clinton and how she dealt with this?"

That seemed to irritate the normally calm Comey.

"Well, I didn't say — I hope folks heard what I said on Tuesday. I didn't say there's no consequences for someone who violates the rules regarding the handling of classified information. There are often very severe consequences in the FBI involving their employment, involving their pay, involving their clearances. I hope folks walk away understanding that just because someone's not prosecuted for mishandling classified information, that doesn't mean, if you work in the FBI, there aren't consequences for it."

(Of course, astute observers will note Clinton did not work in the FBI, so a case could be made that Comey didn't answer the question.)

4. The panel turned to the Petraeus case

You can't mention top government officials and classified information without mentioning former CIA director and disgraced general David Petraeus, who pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material after he was accused of giving the information to his biographer and mistress, Paula Broadwell.

But Comey said there's a clear difference between the cases:"The Petraeus case, in my mind, illustrates perfectly the kind of cases the Department of Justice is willing to prosecute," he said, ticking off the reasons why he thought it was different than Clinton's:

  • The general had "vast quantities of highly classified information."
  • He shared it with someone who wasn't supposed to see it.
  • He kept the information hidden under the insulation in his attic. (A new piece of information about the case.)
  • "And then he lied to us about it during our investigation," Comey said. "So you have obstruction of justice. You have intentional misconduct in a vast quantity of information. He admitted he knew that was the wrong thing to do."

5. Lawmakers drilled down on the big question: Did Clinton lie?

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) (Cliff Owen/Associated Press)

This is the part of the FBI's investigation that's so damaging for Clinton's campaign.

Comey may have decided there's not enough evidence to prosecute her, but his investigation did contradict most, if not all, of what Clinton has been saying publicly about her emails and why she used the private server. In a made-for-campaign-commercial moment, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) proceeded to systematically point out those contradictions with Comey's help:

GOWDY: "Secretary Clinton said she never sent or received classified information over her email? Was it true?"

Comey replied it wasn't true.

GOWDY: "Secretary Clinton said there was nothing marked classified either sent or received. Was it true?"

Nope, not true either, Comey essentially said.

GOWDY: "Clinton said, 'There is no classified material.' Was that true?"

COMEY: "There was classified material emailed."

GOWDY: "Secretary Clinton said she used one device. Was that true?"

COMEY: "She used multiple devices during her four years as secretary of state."

We could go on, but you get the point. Not a pretty conversation for Clinton.

6. Things went meta, with hearing remarks about the hearing remarks

And now, back to politics. Oh, wait — we never left.

Rep. William Lacy Clay (D-Mo.) used his time in front of the microphone to deliver what sounded a lot like a Democratic campaign ad, accusing Republicans of abusing their power as lawmakers for political gain.

Referring to the two-year Benghazi investigation that Democrats slammed as partisan, Clay said: "I did not think it was possible for the majority to exceed their unprecedented, arrogant abuse of official channels and federal funds in a partisan, political witch hunt at taxpayer expense against Secretary Clinton. But I was wrong. This proceeding is just a sequel to that very bad act, and the taxpayers will get the bill. It's a new low, and it violates both House rules and the rules of the committee."

7. They tackled Big Question No. 2: Did Clinton actually understand how the whole system worked?

Things finally got a little weird an hour or so in. Rep. Mark Meadows (R-N.C.) pointed out that the documents Clinton was receiving and sending would have been marked with a "C."

"Wouldn't a reasonable person know that that was a classified marking?" he asked.

"Before this investigation I probably would have said yes," Comey said. "Now, I'm not so sure."

Meadows guffawed. "Come on. I've only been here a few years, and I understand the importance of those markings. So you're suggesting that for a long length of time that she had no idea what a classified marking would be?

Not really, Comey said: "It's an interesting question as to whether she was actually sophisticated enough to understand what a 'C' means."

8. Comey told Republicans: Hey, I hear you. But the law says what it says.

Comey tried again use a past case to explain why Clinton's actions aren't prosecutable.

Former CIA director John M. Deutch pleaded guilty in 2001 to mishandling classified documents after it was discovered several of his laptops had classified information wrongly labeled as unclassified. Republicans have said that's the closest parallel to the Clinton case.

Comey strongly disagreed. "[Deutch] took a huge amount of documents, attempted to destroy some of them when he got caught, admitted: 'I knew I wasn't suppose to be doing this,' he said. " ... Those are the kinds of cases that get prosecuted."

Back to the Clinton case at hand, Comey said: "In my experience, which is three decades, no reasonable prosecutor would bring this case. I know that frustrates people, but that's the way the law is and that's the way the practice is as the Department of Justice."

Post Script: Lawmakers offer their own opinions about what went down: