WASHINGTON - Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has been advised by Justice Department ethics officials that he need not recuse himself from the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, despite his intense public criticism of the probe in the past, a person familiar with the matter said.

As the Justice Department's top official, Whitaker already had been supervising special counsel Robert Mueller and was recently notified of a key guilty plea in the case. The advice from department ethics officials bolsters his case to remain in charge, though Democrats and others will surely question whether he should still step aside to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

It was not immediately clear when ethics officials told Whitaker he need not step aside. Lawmakers, who had questioned Whitaker about the matter, were expected to be notified of the decision later Thursday.

The development was first reported by CNN.