Sexual assault allegations complicate confirmation of vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
By PAUL SONNE, KAROUN DEMIRJIAN AND MISSY RYAN | The Washington Post | Published: July 10, 2019
WASHINGTON — Democrats on the Senate Armed Services Committee said Thursday that they want to hear from the Army colonel who has accused President Trump's pick to become the military's No. 2 officer of sexual misconduct before they let his nomination proceed, putting them firmly at odds with the panel's Republican chairman.
The allegations against Air Force Gen. John E. Hyten prompted a probe by the Air Force criminal investigative service. Based on the results, no disciplinary actions against him were taken. Air Force officials briefed senators on the findings Wednesday.
Hyten, who was nominated in April to become the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has denied the allegations.
Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) said the committee members "deserve to hear from his accuser . . . because right now they're hearing from DOD and his side."
But the panel's chairman, Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), disagreed. When asked Thursday if he wanted to hear directly from the Army colonel, Inhofe said: "No, I don't think that's necessary. I think the examination's been very thorough."
Several members have publicly and privately raised questions about the way the investigation was conducted. In particular, they are concerned that Hyten may have received "preferential treatment," as Duckworth put it, while he was being investigated. Unlike others facing similar allegations, he wasn't removed from duty during the probe, several senators and aides said.
Inhofe dismissed those concerns when asked about them Thursday and suggested that the members harboring them were engaging in a partisan scheme.
"Let's keep in mind, a lot of people, for fairly partisan reasons, want to inflict damage on Donald Trump as well as anybody else on the Republican side," Inhofe said. "That's probably a lot of it."
But according to several lawmakers and aides, some Republicans on the panel are also concerned about the allegations.
Members of both parties are acutely aware that if Hyten's nomination proceeds to a public confirmation hearing, it could be dominated by the sexual misconduct allegations regardless of whether the Army colonel receives an audience before the panel - and some Republicans would rather avoid that inevitability.
The situation is a reminder to many on Capitol Hill of last year's confirmation process for Supreme Court Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh, who was accused of committing sexual assault as a teenager. His accuser, Christine Blasey Ford, initially made the complaint to members of Congress anonymously, but after her identity was revealed, the accusations became the focus of a public hearing featuring both Ford and Kavanaugh.
Unlike the Kavanaugh hearings, however, the matter isn't as politically charged. As an active-duty U.S. military officer, Hyten is obliged to remain apolitical, and while the president nominated him to serve as the military's No. 2 officer, he isn't known to have a particularly close relationship with Trump. Before the accusations surfaced, his nomination carried broad support within the Pentagon's top ranks and among lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Even the prospect of a controversial confirmation might dampen the enthusiasm of lawmakers on the committee, even if they don't know what to make of the substance of the claim.
Though Armed Services Committee Democrats have not coalesced around a single strategy, many of them are advocating that Hyten's accuser receive a possibly public audience on Capitol Hill.
"They need to hear from her and General Hyten," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who added that "there are a variety of ways to do it, either publicly or privately, in part depending on how she wants to give us that version of the facts."
Blumenthal said it may be necessary to delay the confirmation to ensure that the Army colonel can "be treated seriously and with respect."
The confirmation process is already on a tight timeline. Air Force Gen. Paul J. Selva, whom Hyten is due to replace, is scheduled to retire on July 31.
The Army colonel, who was relieved of her duties by Hyten after the alleged assaults for purportedly creating a toxic work environment, said she didn't tell anyone about the incidents at the time and only came forward after seeing Hyten was nominated, out of concern another person could be sexually assaulted.
She has already reached out to several members of the Armed Services Committee, many of whom found her account believable, according to lawmakers and aides.
"I think she's very believable, and I think she deserves to be heard," Duckworth said." But it's up to her if she wants to do it and whether she wants to do it in a closed meeting, open meeting, or if she wants to do it at all."
The colonel has said she is willing to testify to the panel about her alleged assault under oath, though preferably behind closed doors. She spoke to The Washington Post on the condition that her name not be used but agreed to be described by her service and rank.
Individual panel members are still reviewing the details of the investigation report, which numbers some 500 pages, according to Inhofe, who said he was "waiting to hear back from members if they have any statements to make" following their briefings, "and so far, they have not."
Also on Thursday, the Defense Department inspector general's office confirmed it completed an investigation related to various allegations regarding Hyten's travel and use of a government cellphone.
"The evidence did not support any of the allegations, and we did not substantiate any of the allegations," Dwrena Allen, a spokeswoman for the inspector general, said in a statement.
The Army colonel who made the sexual assault allegations against Hyten said she mentioned what she saw as gray-area ethical issues regarding Hyten's wife accompanying him on trips and his use of his work cellphone for nongovernment purposes during interviews with officials that were part of her appeal against the investigation that led to her being relieved of her duties.
She said she didn't intend those comments as formal complaints, because she didn't believe the activity was unlawful. She said she didn't file complaints regarding the activity with the inspector general, though the comments may have automatically triggered a probe by the Pentagon watchdog. She said she served as a witness in the investigation.