WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s nominee to become the second-highest ranking U.S. military officer categorically denied sexual assault allegations against him at his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.
“Nothing happened, ever,” said Air Force General John Hyten, who would become the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff if confirmed.
The full-throated denial by Hyten followed a U.S. Air Force investigation that did not substantiate the allegations against him by an Army colonel who was formerly under his command.
Colonel Kathryn Spletstoser’s allegations included that Hyten engaged in unwanted kissing, touching and rubbing up against her. She sat silently in the hearing room, watching the testimony.
The unsubstantiated allegations against Hyten put the Senate in a difficult position, particularly given growing alarm about sexual assault within the military.
Hyten won critical backing at the hearing from Senator Martha McSally, the first female combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force, who has said she was raped by a superior officer.
“The truth is that General Hyten is innocent of these charges,” McSally said, adding she hoped Spletstoser “gets the help she needs.”
“Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case.”
Senator Jim Inhofe, the Republican chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, signaled that the allegations would not sink Hyten’s nomination.
“This committee takes allegations of sexual assault very seriously — it is unacceptable,” Inhofe said.
“But this committee will not act on unproven allegations—allegations that do not withstand the close scrutiny of this committee’s process.”
Heather Wilson, who was Air Force secretary until she stepped down earlier this year, appeared at the hearing to introduce Hyten and to endorse him. Wilson, who has been a champion for women in the military, said Hyten had been falsely accused.
“This matter should be set aside as you consider his nomination,” she said.
Sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is largely under-reported and the numbers show that the problem is getting worse.
Hyten said he would back reforms to address sexual assault within the U.S. armed forces, saying: “It is a scourge on our military.”
The Pentagon estimated in May that the number of sexual assaults in the military climbed nearly 38 percent in 2018 compared with a survey two years earlier, data that critics say laid bare broken Pentagon promises of a crackdown.
The Pentagon said there were 6,053 reports of sexual assaults last year, according to an anonymous, bi-annual survey. It was the highest since the U.S. military began collecting this kind of survey data in 2004.