Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced Friday that she would accept the indictment recommendations of the FBI in the Clinton email case should such action be suggested by law enforcement agents.Her decision removes the possibility that a political appointee will overrule investigators in the case.
The Justice Department had been moving toward such an arrangement for months — officials said in April that it was being considered — but a private meeting between Ms. Lynch and former President Bill Clinton this week set off a political furor and made the decision all but inevitable.
Republicans said the meeting, which took place at the Phoenix airport, had compromised the independence of the investigation as the F.B.I. was winding it down. Some called for Ms. Lynch to recuse herself, but she did not take herself off the case — one that could influence a presidential election.
Ms. Lynch has said she wants to handle the Clinton investigation like any other case. Since the attorney general often follows the recommendations of career prosecutors, Ms. Lynch is keeping the regular process largely intact.She plans to discuss the matter at a conference in Aspen, Colo., on Friday. The Justice Department declined to comment. The official who confirmed the discussion did so on the condition of anonymity because the internal decision-making process is normally kept confidential.
The F.B.I. is investigating whether Mrs. Clinton, her aides or anyone else broke the law by setting up a private email server for her to use as secretary of state. Internal investigators have concluded that the server was used to send classified information, and Republicans have seized on the matter to question Mrs. Clinton’s judgment.
For the Justice Department, the central question is whether the conduct met the legal standard for the crime of mishandling classified information.
Ms. Lynch said that the meeting with Mr. Clinton was unplanned, largely social and did not touch on the email investigation. She suggested that he walked uninvited from his plane to her government plane, both of which were parked on a tarmac at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport.
“He did come over and say hello, and speak to my husband and myself, and talk about his grandchildren and his travels and things like that,” Ms. Lynch said at a news conference in Los Angeles on Wednesday, where she was promoting community policing. “That was the extent of that. And no discussions were held into any cases or things like that.”
That did not mollify Republican lawmakers, who said the meeting raised questions about the integrity of the government’s investigation.
“In light of the apparent conflicts of interest, I have called repeatedly on Attorney General Lynch to appoint a special counsel to ensure the investigation is as far from politics as possible,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas and a member of the Judiciary Committee, said in a statement on Thursday.
The meeting created an awkward situation for Ms. Lynch, a veteran prosecutor who was nominated from outside Washington’s normal political circles. In her confirmation, her allies repeatedly sought to contrast her with her predecessor, Eric H. Holder Jr., an outspoken liberal voice in the administration who clashed frequently with Republicans who accused him of politicizing the office.
Her reassurance that she will not overrule her investigators is significant. When the F.B.I. sought to bring felony charges against David H. Petraeus, the former C.I.A. director, for mishandling classified information and lying about it, Mr. Holder stepped in and reduced the charge to a misdemeanor. That decision created a deep — and public — rift.
The F.B.I. is expected to make a recommendation to the Justice Department in the coming weeks, though agents have yet to interview Mrs. Clinton. While some legal experts said they believed that criminal indictments in the case were unlikely, the investigation continues to cast a shadow over Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Donald J. Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, seized on the private encounter, describing it in a radio interview as a “sneak” meeting and saying it exposed the rigged nature of the process.
Even some Democrats criticized the meeting. “It doesn’t send the right signal,” Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said in response to a question on CNN’s “New Day.” While he said he believed that Ms. Lynch was an independent prosecutor, “I think she should have steered clear, even of a brief, casual, social meeting with the former president.”
Beyond the day-to-day workings of the Justice Department, there is precedent for explicitly relying on career officials to make politically charged decisions. When the Justice Department was considering whether to recommend sanctions against former Bush administration lawyers who approved waterboarding, Mr. Holder relied on his most senior career prosecutor to make the decision. No sanctions were recommended.