Congress

For Joint Chiefs nominee, a subdued hearing addressing contentious charges

John Hyten defends himself against sexual assault charges before Armed Services panel

Heather A. Wilson, former secretary of the Air Force, introduces Air Force Gen. John Hyten during his confirmation hearing to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

President Donald Trump’s pick to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday publicly defended himself against sexual assault allegations that have clouded his nomination, picking up support from key lawmakers as his accuser, an Army colonel, sat just feet away.

And although the accusations against him are part of a wider cultural issue that has filtered into the presidential campaign, two members of the committee running for president skipped the hearing — and a chance to question the nominee. 

“I want to state to you, and to the American people, that these allegations are false,” Air Force Gen. John Hyten told the Senate Armed Services Committee, with his wife, Laura, sitting behind him. “Nothing happened — ever.”

Col. Kathryn A. Spletstoser has alleged that Hyten, on numerous occasions, inappropriately touched and kissed her, including in a hotel room at the Reagan National Defense Forum in California, when she worked for him in 2017.

“You just had a four-star general get up in front of the American people, and in open testimony in front of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and make false official statements under oath,” Spletstoser said after the hearing. “He lied about sexually assaulting me. He did it. He did multiple times.”

Military sexual assault has percolated as an issue in the 2020 presidential campaign. One of the Democratic contenders, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, has made it a cornerstone issue, advocating to take the decision for prosecuting these crimes outside the chain of command. Gillibrand, who will participate in Wednesday’s primary debate in Detroit, sits on Armed Services but was not present at Tuesday’s hearing.

Gillibrand also was not recorded as voting on the floor last Thursday when Hyten met with the Armed Services panel behind closed doors. Her office has not responded to repeated inquiries about whether she attended that meeting.

Spletstoser said she had not heard from Gillibrand, though she didn’t fault her for missing the hearing.

“The timing of the hearing and the rush to get this all the way through so fast is more telling than anything,” Spletstoser said.

Massachusetts Democrat Elizabeth Warren, another 2020 candidate who will participate in Tuesday’s debate, was also absent from Tuesday’s hearing. Warren, perhaps more than anyone else on the panel, has been openly critical of many of Trump’s Pentagon nominees during their respective confirmation hearings.

Republican support

Senate Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma used just one of his allotted five minutes of questioning at the top of the hearing, ceding his remaining time to Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally, who earlier this year disclosed that a superior raped her while she was in the Air Force.

“Sexual assault happens in the military,” McSally said, “it just didn’t happen in this case.”

McSally has not named the officer whom she says assaulted her, and never pressed charges.

The freshman senator said she spent the last three weeks focusing “nearly solely” on Spletstoser’s allegations, including attending five Armed Services Committee sessions to investigate the claims. Both Hyten and Spletstoser answered the committee’s questions in separate three-hour interviews.

“All accused should be assumed innocent,” McSally said. “Gen. Hyten, I am sorry that you, Laura and your family had to endure this trial, but I am grateful you didn’t back down.”

Spletstoser said she is open to meeting with McSally and added that she wished the first-term senator had reached out to her before the hearing.

But Hyten didn’t escape all scrutiny.

Iowa Republican Joni Ernst questioned Hyten’s leadership.

“The facts have left me with concerns regarding your judgment, leadership and fitness to serve as the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” Ernst said after Hyten admitted in an earlier exchange that it took him “a while” to address the toxic leadership culture at Strategic Command, including failing to address complaints regarding Spletstoser’s conduct.

“You could not bring yourself to admit or recognize toxic leadership in your command,” Ernst said. “You only did something about it when concerns were raised about your own leadership.”

Spletstoser said she doesn’t consider herself to be a “toxic” leader.

“If I was a toxic leader, what does that make Gen. Hyten?” she added. “He knew about my leadership style, he participated in it, he encouraged it.”

Air Force investigation

Heather A. Wilson, who served as Air Force secretary until March 2019, defended Hyten during her introduction and urged the committee to advance his nomination.

“I believe the Senate will come to the same conclusion I did,” said Wilson, a former New Mexico Republican congresswoman. “Gen. Hyten was falsely accused, and this matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination.”

Wilson, before leaving the Air Force, oversaw the investigation into Hyten that resulted in a 1,400-page report that did not substantiate Spletstoser’s claims. Fifty-three investigators interviewed 63 people, and reviewed nearly 200,000 emails and more than 150 travel records.

Wilson called Spletstoser a “wounded soldier who believes that what she is saying is true, even if it is not.”

Spletstoser, who did not testify Tuesday, was stoic as Wilson, Hyten and McSally praised the Pentagon and Armed Services Committee’s investigations into her allegations.

“As a victim,” Spletstoser said after the hearing, “I felt like I got sandbagged in there.”

During the hearing, Hyten promised the committee that if confirmed, he would work to curb the epidemic of military sexual assault. Hyten also vacillated between defending himself and answering narrow questions on military policy as senators trickled in and out.

Spletstoser appeared dispassionate and unexpressive throughout the almost two-and-a-half hour hearing, briefly whispering to the uniformed Air Force officers sitting beside her and occasionally checking her smartphone. After the hearing, she described herself as “shy.”

Way forward

The Senate will soon leave town for August recess, likely leaving Hyten’s nomination in limbo until the chamber returns in September. During that month, the military’s No. 2 position will be vacant, as Air Force Gen. Paul Selva, the current vice chairman, is set to retire Wednesday.

But with the endorsement of McSally and Inhofe, Hyten appears on track for committee approval and eventual confirmation.

Spletstoser detailed her allegations to reporters after the hearing.

“Had he not prematurely ejaculated at [the Reagan Defense Forum], he could have raped me,” Spletstoser said. “As someone who was almost raped that evening, I was just devastated as a human being, and I was scared.”

Spletstoser said she didn’t report Hyten at the time as she did not want to disrupt the conference, a decision she said she regrets.

“In hindsight, I should have,” she said. “Gen. Hyten would have been held accountable, and he’d probably be sitting in jail.”

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