An allegation of sexual assault — though found baseless by Air Force investigators — could complicate the Senate confirmation of a top general slated to become the U.S. military’s No. 2 officer.
The accused is Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command and has been formally nominated to become the next Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Air Force officials opened an investigation into the alleged incident, which took place sometime between late 2017 and early 2018, according to multiple defense and congressional aides familiar with the matter.
Hyten was cleared by “a comprehensive investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations,” Pentagon spokesman Col. DeDe Halfhill wrote in a Wednesday statement to Defense One. “There was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten,” who cooperated with the investigation, Halfhill said.
“U.S. Strategic Command fully cooperated with the investigation by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations,” a command spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “According to Air Force officials, there was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct on the part of Gen. Hyten.”
Officials briefed members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which will review Hyten’s nomination, behind closed doors on Wednesday. Hyten’s accuser had contacted committee members directly, according to defense officials and lawmakers.
“I think a letter was sent to a variety of offices,” said Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich.
In early April, the Air Force received allegations that Hyten had perpetrated “abusive sexual contact” and created “an unprofessional relationship,” a senior military official familiar with the investigation said Wednesday.
The Air Force Office of Special Investigation talked to more than 50 witnesses in three countries and 13 U.S. states in an “exhaustive” investigation, the senior official said. Neither the interviews nor a review of emails offered evidence to support the allegations, the official said.
The office then referred the matter to a court-martial convening authority — Gen. Mike Holmes, the commander of Air Combat Command — who found no evidence to file charges or take administrative action.
But the allegation could nevertheless complicate Hyten’s pathway to confirmation, previously seen as uncontroversial. Hyten is the latest in a string of Trump administration officials to face allegations of sexual assault during the confirmation process. If the Senate proceeds with Hyten’s nomination, he will likely face questioning from Sens. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., both of whom have advocated for sexual assault victims and pushed for reforms to how the military handles sexual assault claims. Both senators are running for president.
Multiple committee members said Wednesday that they are not aware of any formal hold placed on Hyten’s nomination, and lawmakers are now reading the Air Force investigator’s report. “It’s a very long report,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H.
“There is a report I need to read before I say more,” said Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va.
Committee chair Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., praised the investigation as thorough and credible. “I think the people in charge did an excellent job. They were very thorough. There was no indecision, it was all factual,” he said.
Of the Wednesday briefing, Inhofe said, “I didn’t find anything new that I didn’t know already,” but said that he would wait to hear feedback from committee members before determining whether the panel will probe the incident itself.
President Trump nominated Hyten to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs on April 9. He would replace Gen. Paul Selva, who must step down from his four-year appointment on July 31.
The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs typically oversees the weapons development, acquisition and budget, while the chairman focuses on military operations around diplomatic engagements with foreign militaries.
The allegation could thrust the Pentagon into the fraught political debate over how to handle allegations of sexual violence. The dramatic testimony of Christine Blasey Ford during the confirmation hearing for Brett Kavanaugh, President Trump’s Supreme Court pick, was a searing national spectacle that came close to sinking Kavanaugh’s nomination. Conservatives have since derided the allegations as trumped-up or outright fabricated, while Democrats have argued that president is deliberately ignoring sexual violence in his senior officials.
The nomination also comes in the wake of Patrick Shanahan’s withdrawal from consideration for defense secretary last month, after details from a messy divorce became public.
There are currently 18 senior political positions inside the Pentagon with unconfirmed officials serving in an acting capacity, including the defense secretary, deputy defense secretary, chief management officer and Army and Air Force secretaries.
Note: Due to an error by Pentagon officials, this story originally attributed Col. DeDe Halfhill’s statement to a different Pentagon spokesperson.