Senior military officials and key Senate Republicans rallied around President Donald Trump’s pick for next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday by flatly dismissing sexual assault allegations leveled against him by a former aide.
Gen. John Hyten, the current head of U.S. Strategic Command, called the claims against him false and insisted that “nothing happened, ever” with Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, a senior member of his staff who has publicly accused him of assaulting her in a California hotel room in 2017 during a defense policy trip.
“That never happened,” he told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “I’ve never been to her room … on any trip I’ve ever taken.”
The accusations were dismissed by military officials after a lengthy investigation, a point that Hyten’s defenders mentioned repeatedly during his confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
They portrayed Hyten as a man of integrity committed to public service who has seen his nomination to the second-highest military post delayed for weeks over made-up allegations, creating an inconvenience for Pentagon leadership and a hardship for his family.
“I believe the truth still matters in our country. And the full truth was revealed in this process,” said Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and an Air Force veteran who earlier this year publicly revealed her own sexual assault while in the ranks. “The truth is that Gen. Hyten is innocent of these charges.
“Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case.”
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, on hand to defend Hyten to the committee, described Spletstoser as at best confused — “a wounded soldier who believes what she says is true” — and at worst a vengeful malcontent bent on destroying Hyten.
Spletstoser, who attended the hearing, described the event as stunning to her and scary to sexual assault victims across the military.
“You just had a four-star general get up in front of the American people and in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee and make false statements under oath,” she said. “He lied. He lied about sexually assaulting me.”
Spletstoser said she wants to testify before the committee in public to offer her side of the story. She spoke to senators in a non-public session last week, but said the full chamber should hear her account before voting on Hyten’s nomination.
“We’re not talking about winning a case in a court of law,” she said. “We’re talking about a promotion to be the military’s second highest officer, for someone who couldn’t answer simple questions on sexual assault policy and how to handle it.”
It was unclear Tuesday whether she would be allowed to publicly testify.
Democrats on the committee said the allegations raise serious concerns about Hyten’s ability to help lead the military, especially in light of the institution’s continued struggle to deal with sexual harassment and assault among its personnel.
A report from the department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response in May estimated more than 20,000 sexual assaults in the ranks in fiscal 2018, a rise of nearly 38 percent over the previous two years.
Hyten’s critics questioned whether he can credibly lead the reform efforts within the military, but also acknowledged that no corroborating evidence could be found to support the assault allegations, leaving them with an unclear choice of who to believe.
“Corroborating evidence, the lack of does it not necessarily mean that the accusations are not true,” said Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. “Women are assaulted all the time and don't tell anyone. Men assault women all the time and don't leave behind any evidence.”
In a twist, Hyten and the military’s pushback against the accuser may have opened another potential confirmation problem for the nominee.
Hyten called Spletstoser a “brilliant” officer who he believed performed admirably in her job, but later learned of serious problems with her leadership style that culminated in an investigation of her within his command. Spletstoser was later forced out of her role, and afterwards made several other unsubstantiated complaints about the leadership team before the sexual assault allegations.
Supporters of Hyten highlighted that as evidence of a motive for her to fabricate stories about Hyten. But several senators asked whether it showed he was slow to react to clear problems with senior personnel surrounding him, and why he should be trusted with a promotion to the top ranks of the military.
“You could not bring yourself to admit or recognize toxic leadership within your command,” said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa. “You continued to endorse her. You only did something about it when concerns were raised about your own leadership.
“All of this suggests a conflict between your personal inclinations and your professional responsibilities.”
Hyten said he learned from the experience, and pledged if confirmed to work on that and on a better Defense Department response to sexual assault issues.
“As the vice chairman, I’ll have a significant role to reach out and work these issues,” he said. “I’ve thought about it a lot. I’ve worked with people closely asking what should we do. Every time I look at the (sexual assault) numbers, they seem to be worse, not better. “
“We have tried so many things, but the numbers say they are not working.”
Committee chairman Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Olka., said a final vote by the Senate on Hyten’s confirmation could come this week, before members begin their extended summer legislative break. However, several committee members said they would oppose moving too quickly on that, saying they still have unanswered questions.
Several committee members said they will press for more details of the military’s investigation into the accusations to be released publicly in coming weeks.
If the vote doesn’t happen by Friday, the nomination will await final action until at least September.
Meanwhile, Spletstoser predicted that if Hyten’s nomination goes forward, it will have a chilling effect on military morale.
“This moving forward tells everybody, every sexual assault survivor victim that they need not come forward,” she said. “That their own character, despite having a flawless record, will be questioned. That they will be the one investigated. That they will not see justice.”