Commerce secretary's hit-and-run keeps Obama off message

A hit-and-run accident involving Commerce Secretary John Bryson threw the White House off message Monday just as President Obama sought to regain his footing after a series of political missteps.

After hitting a car in the Los Angeles area and driving away from the scene in his Lexus, Bryson received a felony hit-and-run citation before hitting a second car minutes later. 

Bryson announced late Monday night he was taking a leave of office to deal with health issues, and that Deputy Secretary Rebecca Blank would become commerce secretary. Commerce had said Bryson suffered a seizure, and in his announcement he said he would be taking a medical leave of absence to focus on his health. 

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The Bryson news was just the latest distraction for a White House reeling from a run of bad news in recent weeks.

“My hope is that he’s doing alright,” Obama said Monday in an interview with KTIV News 4 in Sioux City, Iowa. “We’re still trying to find out — it sounds like it was health-related in some way. But we’re gonna make sure that obviously he gets the best care and we’ll be able to make a determination from there.”

White House press secretary Jay Carney — who fielded a barrage of questions from reporters on the matter, including an inquiry about Bryson’s vetting and mandatory physicals for Cabinet members — wouldn’t say if Obama believed Bryson was able to serve in the position or even if the president knew about his health condition before he nominated him.

Carney, at times combative, said Bryson “has been an effective Commerce secretary” since his confirmation last October, but referred the bulk of reporters’ questions to the Department of Commerce.

The White House spokesman said Obama first learned about the Bryson incident on Monday morning, more than a day after the accidents occurred, and Republicans, seizing on their recent momentum, immediately pounced.

With the briefing in progress, Tim Miller, the deputy communications director at the Republican National Committee, wrote on Twitter that it was “Rather odd that [Carney] knows no details about a cabinet secretary that got into 3 car crashes and was hospitalized 2 nights ago.”

The White House’s last week was a difficult one, as Democrats lost a recall election in Wisconsin, Obama’s campaign was outraised in the month of May by Republican Mitt Romney’s operation and Obama found himself differing on tax policy with former President Bill Clinton.

The bad week culminated with a gaffe by the president on Friday. Seeking to use the bully pulpit to push Republicans to approve his employment proposals, Obama said governments were shedding jobs but that the private sector was “doing fine.”

Republicans have sought to capitalize on the remarks, quickly walked back by Obama. Romney’s campaign released a video highlighting the gaffe on Sunday, and the campaign followed up on Monday with a video titled “Jolt.”

“Has there ever been a president so out of touch with the middle class?” the Romney video asks.

Given the Bryson news, Monday didn’t start much better for Obama. And at the afternoon White House briefing, Carney fielded tough questions not only on the Commerce secretary’s traffic accidents but on the recent controversy over national-security leaks and Monday’s news that a House panel would vote on whether to hold Attorney General Eric Holder in contempt.

Carney on Monday was left to continue cleaning up after Obama’s “private sector” gaffe. When Carney was asked if the White House would stop taking Romney’s comments out of context, he lectured reporters “to do your jobs and report context” on the remarks made by Obama. 

“I would say that our general position is that we’re for truthful, accurate, factual reporting that’s done in context,” he said. 

Obama aides and the president’s campaign officials cast the “private sector” remarks as a distraction, at worst, and say they’re focused on the bigger picture — securing 270 electoral votes while continuing with the president’s policies. 

But the dominant topic at the White House briefing — at least for Monday — was Bryson. 

And Carney — who was asked a string of medical questions and at one point blatantly stated, “I was not the presiding doctor on this case” — continued to point reporters to the Department of Commerce.

Bryson, who was back in Washington on Monday, has yet to be charged with the hit-and-run accidents, according to officials at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.

The law enforcement officials told The Hill that Bryson took a Breathalyzer test after the second crash in Rosemead, which came back negative for alcohol. If a blood test shows he was not under the influence, there won’t be any criminal charges in the Rosemead crash, said Capt. Mike Parker of the L.A. County Sheriff’s office.

But Bryson still faces felony hit-and-run charges for the first crash, a spokeswoman said.

Police officials said they were not aware that Bryson suffered from any pre-existing conditions. But they said that the Commerce secretary could be in jeopardy of losing his driver’s license following the seizure.

A doctor would have to clear Bryson to drive following the seizure, law enforcement officials said.

This story was updated at 10:15 p.m.