Senate Republicans on Tuesday raised doubts about sexual assault allegations against Air Force Gen. John Hyten, President Trump’s nominee to serve as vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, suggesting the matter is unlikely to derail his confirmation.
Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who revealed earlier this year that she herself was sexually assaulted while in the military, said she found no evidence to corroborate a claim that Hyten assaulted a colonel who worked for him.
“Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case,” McSally, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee considering Hyten’s appointment, said during a confirmation hearing, declaring Hyten “innocent of these charges” after conducting a three-week review of the allegations.
Army Col. Kathryn A. Spletstoser told the New York Times that Hyten assaulted her in her hotel room in late 2017.
Hyten denied the claims.
“It has been a painful time for me and my family, but I want to state to you and to the American people in the strongest possible terms that these allegations are false,” he said before the Armed Services Committee.
Spletstoser, who worked for Hyten at U.S. Strategic Command, in Omaha, accused Hyten of sexually assaulting her in a Palo Alto hotel room in 2017 during a work trip. Several lawmakers said an Air Force investigation had not corroborated the allegation.
Spletstoser, who sat in the audience at Tuesday’s hearing, said the investigation was not thorough and that Hyten did not fully cooperate. “I felt like I got sandbagged in there,” Spletstoser told reporters after the hearing.
She acknowledged that her allegation was “a classic he-said-she-said” because “there were only two people.”
Armed Services Committee Chairman Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) said he expected Hyten to be confirmed.
To some, the Hyten nomination rekindled memories of the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh and the decades-old allegations of sexual assault leveled by professor Christine Blasey Ford, who testified against him publicly.
Inhofe said he did not want the Hyten hearing to become “another Kavanaugh thing,” in which a nominee was forced to combat claims of sexual misconduct in a public hearing. He said last year’s Supreme Court process influenced how he addressed the claims against Hyten. Both Hyten and Spletstoser testified before the committee behind closed doors and the committee held five private sessions to review the evidence and testimony. Spletstoser did not testify in public.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), another military veteran on the panel, said lawmakers of both parties “really went into this with a sober attitude without partisan politics and we really dug into this.”
McSally emphasized that her belief that Hyten was innocent should not discourage sexual assault victims from coming forward and trusting that their claims will be treated fairly.
“Don’t take the wrong message from how this is being played out publicly,” she said. “The process I just witnessed was strong, fair and investigators turned over every rock to seek justice.”
In 2018, an estimated 20,500 U.S. service members — about 13,000 women and 7,500 men — said they were sexually assaulted, according to an anonymous survey compiled every two years by the Department of Defense. That’s up from a reported 14,600 cases in 2016, according to the survey, which was released in May.
But only about one in three service members who experienced sexual assault chose to report it, according to the survey.
Victims of a lower rank than their attackers often decide against coming forward, experts say, fearing their claims will not be believed or that they will face career-ending retaliation.
Documents related to the investigation have not been made public, but portions of the record may be released before the Senate votes. Hyten agreed under questioning from Sen. Richard J. Blumenthal (D-Conn.) that he would support their release.
Hyten said Spletstoser had engaged in “toxic leadership” over those she supervised and suggested that he had been blinded to their complaints about her because she did good work and appeared professional in her dealings with him. She was “brilliant, she was doing spectacular work,” he said.
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a military veteran who has discussed being the victim of rape while in college and later spousal abuse, expressed concerns with how Hyten dealt with his accuser. He gave her positive work performance reviews until approximately the same time as the assault allegations. She was reassigned four months later.
“You only did something about it when concerns were raised about your own leadership,” Ernst said. “All of this suggests a conflict between your personal inclinations and your professional responsibilities.”
Ernst said she had “concerns” with Hyten’s judgment, but added she would wait for the confirmation process to play out to make a judgment.
Democrats were divided as well. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) said she was not aware of corroborating evidence, but “the lack of it does not necessarily mean the accusations aren’t true.”
Blumenthal said Monday he would not support Hyten’s confirmation because of the accusations.
“Based on the information and evidence available to me so far, I can’t support the nomination,” he said. “The survivor has been incredibly courageous in coming forward and her allegations are serious and credible.”
Duckworth, as well as presidential hopefuls Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), raised concerns that the military’s investigation was conducted properly.
The Defense Department did not follow its procedures, she said, “and that’s a problem because it gives an appearance of preferential treatment for him, which then leads to the question why they feel that the need to do that.”
Neither Warren nor Gillibrand, both members of the panel, were at the hearing ahead of Tuesday and Wednesday’s Democratic presidential debates.
Gillibrand opposes Hyten’s nomination and earlier this month raised concerns that the investigation of Spletstoser’s allegations was conducted by an officer junior to Hyten.
Warren believes the Air Force made an exception for Hyten because of his rank and nomination, and that the job should go to someone else, according to one of her aides.