Senate Armed Services Committee members on Wednesday advanced the nomination of an Air Force general accused of sexually harassing and assaulting an aide, but a full floor vote on his confirmation likely won’t take place for several more weeks.
Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., said his panel members comfortably backed Gen. John Hyten, 20-7, to become the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs, the second-highest uniformed military post.
“I have no concerns (about Hyten) at all,” he told reporters after the committee vote. “You’re talking about five classified briefings, where every member had every chance to ask every question.”
The nomination of Hyten, the current head of U.S. Strategic Command, has been stalled for weeks as senators wrestled with the allegations of sexual assault. On Tuesday, Hyten spoke publicly about the accusations for the first time during his confirmation hearing, denying any inappropriate behavior.
The accusations were dismissed by military officials after a lengthy investigation, and multiple Republican senators defended that decision after reviewing hundreds of pages of documentation in the case.
Committee member Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., and an Air Force veteran who earlier this year publicly revealed her own sexual assault while in the ranks, declared at the hearing that “Gen. Hyten is innocent of these charges” and blasted his accuser for spreading lies.
Hyten’s accuser — Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser — attended the hearing and told reporters afterwards that both the Senate and military officials were turning their backs on sexual assault victims.
“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.”
Military officials have yet to make public any of their investigation, but have promised to do so in coming weeks.
Inhofe had hoped to bring Hyten’s nomination to a full floor vote this week, ahead of the Senate’s five-week summer recess, but said Wednesday after the committee meeting that timeline was unrealistic.
“There are going to be a lot of people who want to talk on the floor, and are opposed to it,” Inhofe said. “There are very few on the committee opposed, because they had the full benefit of all the classified hearings.”
Among the committee members who were against advancing Hyten were presidential candidates Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., both of whom voted via proxy while attending the Democratic Party debate in Detroit.
Sens. Maizie Hirono, D-Hawaii, and Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., also voiced doubts linked to the allegations ahead of the vote. Hirono voted “no” due to outstanding questions from Hyten, and said she would have preferred the nomination was not rushed.
“I’m voting ‘no’ from a procedure standpoint and I am withholding judgment,” on the assault allegations, she said.
Duckworth also sidestepped the validity of the assault allegations but said she felt Hyten offered a weak answer about how to deal with sexual assault in the military, and due to issues of toxic leadership problems within his current office.
“I think that disqualifies him from being the vice chief,” Duckworth said. “He has shown he had some failing as a leader where he did not see a toxic leader in his own organization. (His accuser) was closer to him than anyone else and he did single her out for praise.”
Hyten fielded several questions on that command climate issue during his confirmation hearing, all centered on his decision to investigate and fire Spletstoser well after complaints from other office personnel.
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, and an Iraq War veteran, told reporters that she also voted against Hyten’s nomination. She raised similar leadership concerns to Duckworth’s in the confirmation hearing.
The other “no” votes came from Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., and Gary Peters, D-Mich.
Democrats, otherwise, gave Hyten strong backing. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., said Hyten had been subject to “an exhaustive, thorough investigation” and was “impeccably qualified.” He said the committee’s investigation answered all of his concerns.
“Those allegations were taken seriously at the highest levels, the investigation was done and completed,” Jones said. “I’m going to vote for him.”
Senators are scheduled to leave town on Thursday for the start of their legislative break, and return on Sept. 9.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.