The general nominated to be the nation's No. 2 military officer appears slated to move forward in the Senate, after defending himself against allegations of sexual assault.
Air Force Gen. John Hyten, President Donald Trump’s nominee to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, received strong backing from Republicans and even some Democratic support, following his confirmation hearing Tuesday.
Hyten got a boost at the outset from former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, a popular leader with both parties, and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), who came to his defense and called allegations of sexual assault levied against him “false.”
McSally — a retired Air Force pilot who revealed this year that she was raped by a superior officer — offered a forceful early defense of Hyten.
"To be clear, this wasn’t just a jump ball. Not a he said she said. Not a situation where we just couldn’t prove what allegedly happened," McSally said at the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. "I believe the truth still matters in our country. And the full truth was revealed in this process."
The Arizona Republican said she focused “solely” on the allegations over the past several weeks.
"The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges," McSally said. "Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case."
Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said that he was confident Hyten would be confirmed, while Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a member of the Committee, questioned the credibility of his accuser, Army Col.
“The accuser also levied multiple allegations of misconduct of a non-sexual nature not just against him but against many other persons at Strategic Command,” Cotton told reporters outside the hearing. “Those accusations were all found to be unsubstantiated.”
Hyten was introduced by Wilson, who directed the investigation against Hyten when the allegations surfaced. She defended the service’s investigation, which she called “thorough” and resulted in a report of more than 1,400 pages.
“After all of this, I believe the Senate will come to the same conclusion I did: Gen. Hyten was falsely accused and this matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination,” Wilson said.
“I accept that it is entirely possible that his accuser is a wounded soldier who believes what she is saying is true, even if it’s not,” she said. “That possibility makes this whole situation very sad.”
Support from Wilson, who was discussed as a potential candidate for defense secretary, could bolster Hyten’s credibility among Democrats. Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama said he planned to support Hyten’s nomination and said Wilson’s opening remarks “[summarized] everything” he believes.
Spletstoser disputed Hyten's account after the hearing. She told reporters she was "stunned" by the proceedings and criticized the Air Force's investigation.
“The bottom line is he lied about sexually assaulting me. He did it. He did it multiple times, and there was corroborating evidence in that report of investigation,” she said.
If Hyten is confirmed, she added, “It says that every general officer and flag officer is above the law and that they won’t be treated under the same set of circumstances as anybody else."
Spletstoser, who worked for Hyten, accused the general of unwanted sexual advances and said he attempted to derail her career when she declined his advances. After detailing her allegations anonymously in interviews, Spletstoser went public in an interview with The New York Times late last week. Spletstoser said she plans to retire at the end of the year.
The Air Force probed the allegations this year, but concluded there wasn't sufficient evidence to take action against Hyten.
Both Spletstoser and Hyten testified on the allegations privately last week before the committee. And Spletstoser was present at the hearing Tuesday.
Now the commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten categorically denied the allegations in his opening statement.
“It has been a painful time for me and my family,” Hyten said. “But I want to state to you and to the American people in the strongest possible terms that these allegations are false.”
“Nothing happened, ever,” he said.
Still, strong endorsements from McSally and Wilson didn’t ensure a completely smooth hearing for the four-star general. Republican Joni Ernst of Iowa pressed Hyten on complaints that Spletstoser had exhibited toxic leadership at Strategic Command, asking him why he hadn’t acted earlier to address the problem.
“You only did something about it when concerns were raised about your own leadership,” Ernst said.
“All of this suggests a clear conflict between your personal inclinations and your professional responsibilities,” she said. “So this leaves me with concerns about your judgment and ability to lead in one of the highest positions in the U.S. military.”
And while they hailed the committee’s vetting process, many Armed Services Democrats weren’t yet ready to back Hyten’s confirmation.
“Many of us, I think, feel there remain serious unresolved questions and factual issues that have not been completely answered on the record,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “We need to seek those answers and make them public as much as possible.”
"There are concerns related to his judgment that I think are legitimate concerns at this point," said Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii), who hasn't decided on the nomination.
Democrats probed him how he would handle the epidemic levels of sexual assault in the military.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), who has questioned whether the Air Force may have treated Hyten preferentially in its investigation, criticized the general’s responses on how he would combat military sexual assault as “vague.”
“For you to say ‘I don’t know enough and I’m going to wait and talk to the experts’ really bothers me, because you’ve had such precise answers on everything else. And this is a cancer within our military,” Duckworth said.
“I worry about your leadership on this issue,” she added.
Two of the Democrats' most dogged questioners on military sexual assault issues — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York — did not attend the hearing. Both are taking part in presidential debates in Detroit on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Senate is running short on time to confirm a new vice chairman. The current vice chairman, Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, retires this week. And senators are set to leave for an extended August recess starting this week.
Inhofe said that he will discuss with Committee members later Tuesday the next steps for Hyten’s confirmation.
“I know the man, I know the accusation I know the non-supportive issues and I think we’re ready to do it,” he said. “This guy has sustained more investigations than anyone I recall in my career.”