“I notified President Obama this evening that effective immediately I am taking a medical leave of absence so I can focus all of my attention on resolving the health issues that arose over the weekend,” Bryson wrote. He said his second in command, Rebecca Blank, would be the acting secretary in his absence. Blank has already served in that capacity, filling in after former secretary Gary Locke left to be ambassador to China.
Bryson did not say more about the nature of his health issues. Neither did the White House, which said that “President Obama’s thoughts are with Secretary Bryson and his family during this time.”
The length of Bryson’s leave is undetermined, and a Commerce official said late Monday that he is undergoing tests and will consult with doctors before making a final decision about whether to return to work.
Bryson, 68, is the newest permanent member of Obama’s 21-person Cabinet, taking his post in October. His leave ended a tumultuous day in which White House officials conceded that they had not learned of Bryson’s accidents until a full day after they occurred. They acknowledged that, even two days afterward, they did not fully understand what had happened.
Bryson was driving alone when his Lexus ran into two other cars shortly after 5 p.m. Pacific time Saturday — hitting one of the vehicles twice. Nobody in the other cars was seriously hurt. After the third crash, Bryson was found unconscious behind the wheel. He was treated overnight at a Los Angeles area hospital.
On Monday, Commerce Department spokeswoman Jennifer Friedman said the secretary had suffered a seizure — his first — at some point during the incident. She said toxicology tests confirmed that neither alcohol nor drugs played a role in the crashes. A spokesman from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department declined to comment on the tests.
On Monday, however, it was unclear what caused Bryson’s seizure and what part it played in the collisions. The secretary has “limited recall” of the events, Friedman said. The Los Angeles County district attorney will decide whether to prosecute him, based on the felony citation he was issued for leaving the scene of an accident.
Aides said Monday that Bryson flew back to Washington on Sunday night, but he made no public appearances. At the White House, officials seemed to be struggling to understand what had happened to Bryson.
Obama talked to local TV anchors Monday, and KTIV, the NBC affiliate in Sioux City, Iowa, asked him about Bryson. “I haven’t spoken to him,” the president said. “I just found about this today. My hope is that he’s doing all right. We’re still trying to find out. It sounds like it was health-related in some way. But we’re going to make sure, obviously, that he gets the best care and we’ll be able to make a determination from there.”