The memo is out. Now it's time for the GOP to put up or shut up

Key Points
  • The long-awaited GOP House Intelligence Committee memo accuses government officials of legal abuses.
  • These allegations are too serious for the Republicans to be allowed to simply use them to score political points.
  • If they really believe this memo's allegations, then they must vote to launch a special counsel investigation.
Rep. Devin Nunes, R-CA., and Rep. Paul Ryan, R-WI.
Douglas Graham | CQ Roll Call | Getty Images

The House Intelligence Committee memo has now been declassified and released. Depending on whom you ask, it's either a blockbuster indictment of the Obama administration and the FBI … or something of a dud.

The crux of the memo accuses senior Justice Department and FBI officials of deliberately omitting key facts about the source of their evidence used before the court to get a warrant to eavesdrop on the Trump campaign.

Specifically, it says those senior officials knew, but did not tell the court, the infamous "Steele dossier" was written by Christopher Steele, who was paid $160,000 by the Hillary Clinton campaign to conduct so-called opposition research on then-candidate Trump. The memo does not mention that a conservative donor who opposed Trump at the time also gave money to Steele during the primary process. Of course in any case, the memo says the multiple anti-Trump sponsors of Steele's efforts were not disclosed to the court.

Nunes memo alleges anti-Trump bias at FBI and DOJ

It also cites several other conflicts of interest and security violations. Finally, it reminds readers that former FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe recently told Congress that no surveillance warrant would have even been pursued if it hadn't been for that flawed Steele document.

President Donald Trump is summarizing what many Republicans and conservatives believe the memo means:

Democrats say the memo is just a selective cherry picking of facts meant to distract the public and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller's probe of the Trump campaign. They have attacked the chief author of the memo, Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, calling him "deliberately dishonest" and demanding he step down as committee chair.

Then there's the D.C. bureaucratic establishment, which publicly called for the memo not to be released and warned that it could unduly harm the FBI with misleading information.

All of this back-and-forth really only leads to one conclusion:

It's time for the Republicans to put up or shut up.

After declassifying the memo on Friday, Trump simply said, "I sent it over to Congress. They're going to do whatever they're going to do." In this case, "they" is really the Republican congressional leaders since the GOP still controls the majority in both the House and Senate.

Partisanship or not, the allegations in this memo are extremely serious. Withholding the full truth and origins of evidence is not just a careless error. It would be serious even if the abuses were committed against an unknown private citizen for non-partisan reasons. Yet this memo alleges an anti-Trump partisan operation produced a dubious document and FBI and Justice Department officials deliberately misled the intelligence court about it.

The Republicans in Congress and the Trump administration cannot simply leave it at that. If they believe these allegations, they must follow this up with the appointment of another special counsel armed with the authority to subpoena and investigate current and former FBI officials and members of the Obama administration and Clinton campaign.

A natural response to this from many Americans could very well be collective groan over yet another special counsel probe. But if the Republicans simply release this memo as some kind of trial balloon and leave it at that, then the Democrats will be proven right about this simply being a partisan distraction technique.

On the flip side, those accused in this memo deserve a chance to face their accusers in a legal setting and give their side of the story. Yes, they can do that on TV news shows. But that's hardly the place to settle anything definitively.

Finally, if these allegations are true some people need to go to jail. Most of us know partisanship has become nastier and more entrenched in recent years, but that's not an excuse for illegal activity. If this kind of abuse of power has truly happened, bad publicity from released memos or even a forced resignation or two won't be enough.

So far, House Speaker Paul Ryan is sending a very mixed message about whether Congress will act on this memo with prosecution. He defended releasing the memo this week, but he also said it is, "not an indictment of the FBI, of the Department of Justice."

That sounds like Ryan wants to move on. But doing so would be the height of hypocrisy. GOP leaders can't overrule the director of the FBI and other intelligence community bureaucrats and release this memo, and then act as if nothing in it is really worth prosecuting.

This memo can't become tantamount to just another twitter slam. Congress, and specifically the Republicans who control it, must prove they're serious by voting for a special counsel. Otherwise they shouldn't have moved to release it in the first place.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

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