General John Hyten, President Donald Trump’s pick to serve as vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was questioned by senators on Tuesday about sexual assault allegations leveled against him by a former aide. During his confirmation hearing, Republican lawmakers argued that Hyten was innocent and that the allegations should be disregarded, and spoke of a world in which senior military officers would live in fear of false accusations.
According to a survey released in May by the Defense Department, sexual assault in the military has increased in recent years. It estimated there was a 38% increase in the number of instances of unwanted sexual contact since 2016. In the 2018 fiscal year alone, there were an estimated 20,500 instances of this kind of harassment.
At the beginning of the confirmation hearing, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) said the allegations were “bandied about in the press with little regard to the truth.” Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) countered that lawmakers could not say with certainty that the alleged victim’s account was false.
The aide who came forward with allegations, Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, said there were a number of unwanted advances from Hyten, the most serious of which happened when he assaulted her in a hotel room in 2017. She went public with the allegations in April, shortly after he was nominated. Spletstoser said Hyten held her close to him and ejaculated on her. A statement from her lawyer to CNN described the incident:
“He stood up too, pulled me to him and started kissing me on the lips and holding me tight while he pressed himself against me. After a while, maybe over a minute, he came and I pushed him away and asked him why he did that. He said he thought I would like it too.”
When the United States Air Force Office of Special Investigations reviewed the allegations, it found insufficient evidence to charge him or recommend a punishment.
Last week, in separate closed-door sessions, Hyten and Spletstoser met with senators. Spletstoser testified for more than three hours. After the committee hearing, she said it would send a “very dangerous message to sexual assault victims across our military” if Hyten is confirmed.
Hyten has continued to deny he ever sexually assaulted or sexually harassed Spletstoser, and he maintained that during the hearing. When questioned by Hirono on whether he sexually assaulted anyone, harassed anyone verbally, or asked for sexual favors, he said he did not.
Heather Wilson, the former Secretary of the United States Air Force, who served from 2017 until this year, and a former Republican member of Congress herself, said investigators reviewed “over 196,000 emails and 4,000 pages of documents,” in addition to 152 travel records and portions of phone records dating back to 2015.
“After all of this, I believe the senate will come to same conclusion I did: General Hyten was falsely accused and this matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination,” she 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 is not. That possibility makes this whole situation very sad.”
Although many Republicans took a different approach with Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s accusation against Brett Kavanaugh, who had testified before the Senate in a public hearing, there are some similarities in how they criticized Spletstoser.
Republicans largely contended that Blasey Ford genuinely believed Kavanaugh assaulted her, even though they believe otherwise. Some Republican lawmakers, such as Sen. James Lankford (R-OK), said at the time “The event happened in their life, but whether Kavanaugh was the one who was even physically there or not is a great unknown, because we’ve got a very strong denial from Kavanaugh. It’s 35 years ago with alcohol, and with everything else it’s very difficult to be able to say it was definitely this person.”
Sen. Martha McSally (R-AZ), a retired Air Force pilot who earlier this year publicly disclosed she was sexually assaulted by a superior officer while she was in the military, backed Hyten. She made similar remarks, suggesting Spletstoser’s accusations were the result of some vague personal problem of her own.
“I am confident in the outcome. 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,” said McSally. “I, too, believe that truth still matters in this country and the full truth was revealed in this process. The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges. Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case. I pray the accuser gets the help she needs and finds the peace she is searching for but it cannot be through destroying General Hyten through these false allegations.”
In addition to claiming that Hyten was innocent, McSally said that false allegations would hurt the careers of women in the military. She did not indicate that it would be wrong for men to punish women for the false accusations of other people or to treat women as risks to their career.
“False allegations like these are not without collateral damage. Male military leaders may avoid choosing females for key positions, ultimately hurting service women’s opportunities for career enhancing jobs. Male commanders might think twice about disciplining female subordinates for fear of sexual assault allegations and retribution. This could act as a cancer on good order and discipline. Male senior military leaders may decide to retire instead of accepting higher positions,” she said.
Hirono said she was skeptical of McSally’s theory.
“The fear that men in command or men in positions of authority will be subjected to false accusations because of the fear that women spend time sitting around accusing men falsely is a dangerous view in my opinion because the fact is women who are sexually assaulted more often do not report,” Hirono said.
Hirono also added that the fact that there was insufficient evidence during the investigation does not mean that Spletstoser is lying and added that although false accusations occur, they are rare. False accusations of sexual assault from women are estimated to be at 8-10% at the highest.
“The allegations against you are serious and although we have not been presented with any corroborating evidence, the lack of it does not necessarily mean that the accusations aren’t true. Women are assaulted all the time and don’t tell anyone. Men assault women all the time and don’t leave behind any evidence,” Hirono said. “Of course, you have denied allegations and it appears that a very rigorous investigation has been done and women sometimes do make false accusations although I would say it is rare.”
Hirono and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) also questioned Hyten on what he would do to prevent sexual assault in the military. Hyten provided a vague answer to Shaheen, who asked the question first, and called sexual assault a “scourge.” Hirono followed up and asked him to detail what he would specifically do to prevent sexual assault and hold people accountable.
Hyten said he would talk to experts on sexual harassment and violence, listen, implement improvements, and educate commanders on the issue. He told Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) that he would not temporarily remove an officer who is accused of sexual assault without corroborating evidence, but that he would remove them from the same physical office space. Although he said the military has not done a good job reducing sexual assault, he said he would not take investigations out of the chain of command. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has argued that commanders should not be reviewing sexual assault cases and that they should be taken care of by military prosecutors, citing conflicts of interest.
Some Democratic senators said they aren’t sure whether the investigation was actually impartial.
Before the hearing, Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-IL), another military veteran, said, “The military has a clear process. My concern with this case is that they didn’t follow their process.”
Hyten is just the latest Trump nominee with a history of sexual violence and harassment allegations. Brett Kavanaugh, who had at least three accusations of sexual misconduct, was nominated and confirmed to the Supreme Court last year. In April, Trump recommenced Herman Cain, a former Godfather’s Pizza executive, for a seat on the Federal Reserve Board. He ended his 2012 presidential bid after four women came forward with sexual harassment allegations against him. Cain eventually dropped out of consideration. The Trump administration also hired Steven Muñoz for a State Department job as assistant chief of visits, which he began in January 2017. Five men who attended The Citadel military college said Muñoz sexually assaulted them, according to a ProPublica story published in 2017.
Some of his appointments for White House staff have also been accused of intimate partner violence, including White House aide Rob Porter and White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, who both no longer work in the Trump administration. Andrew Puzder, who Trump nominated for labor secretary in 2017, dropped out after a video resurfaced of his ex-wife, Lisa Fierstein, appearing on a 1990 episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show called “High Class Battered Women.”
Many other Trump nominees who have not been known to engage in sexual violence personally have nevertheless enabled a culture that condones it. Although the media had reported extensively on Labor Secretary Alex Acosta’s sweetheart plea deal for billionaire and convicted sex offender Jeffrey Epstein, Trump nominated him for Labor Secretary in 2017. After Epstein was arrested in July on the sex trafficking of minors and conspiracy to engage in sex trafficking of minors, public pressure on Acosta to resign increased until he finally stepped down.
Barry Myers, whom Trump nominated in 2017 to lead the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and is up for the same position again this year, was the chief executive of a family weather company called AccuWeather. As ThinkProgress previously reported, an investigation into AccuWeather conducted by the Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs found that the company subjected women to sexual harassment, and the company paid $290,000 as part of a settlement.
And at least 24 women have made allegations of sexual misconduct against the president himself. Most recently, columnist E. Jean Carroll said Trump sexually assaulted her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in the 1990s.