Confirming Hyten will send 'very dangerous message' to assault victims, accuser warned lawmakers

The Army colonel who has accused Air Force Gen. John Hyten of sexual misconduct delivered a warning to a Senate committee last week — telling the lawmakers that it would send "a very dangerous message to sexual assault victims" to promote him to be the nation's second-highest ranking military officer.

On Tuesday, Hyten will testify in front of the same panel of senators as they consider his nomination for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. But Col. Kathryn Spletstoser — who only revealed her identity publicly on Friday — testified to a closed session of the Armed Services Committee last week that elevating Hyten would deter the next victim from coming forward to report being attacked by a high-ranking officer.

"Even if the investigators determine that there was no evidence to show that the victim was lying … no one will believe her anyway, so why even bother reporting," Spletstoser told the committee, according to a copy of her opening statement obtained by POLITICO.

In an interview with POLITICO on Monday, she added: "If he’s actually confirmed as vice chairman, it tells every general officer or flag officer that they’re above the law, that victims do not matter. ... You will not have victims coming forward when justice doesn’t get served. We have a horrible track record on this anyway” as a military.

Spletstoser had previously aired her account in a number of news outlets, at first anonymously, before going public in a New York Times story Friday.

The Pentagon disputes her accusations against Hyten. An investigation that involved 53 witness interviews "determined there was insufficient evidence to support any finding of misconduct against General Hyten," Pentagon spokesperson Col. DeDe Halfhill said in a statement.

Spletstoser, who says her former boss assaulted her during a conference in late 2017, leveled her allegation after President Donald Trump nominated Hyten in April, prompting the inquiry by the Air Force’s Office of Special Investigations.

Tuesday's hearing in the Armed Services Committee comes less than a year after the Senate confirmed Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh despite Christine Blasey Ford's accusations that he had sexually assaulted her at a party when they were teenagers.

And it comes as the Pentagon continues to face its own crisis of sexual assault — with one Armed Services member, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.), disclosing earlier this year that she too had survived a rape while in the military. Based on anonymous survey data, a military report released earlier this year found a spike in sexual assaults in 2018, estimating that some 20,500 troops were assaulted — a four-year high.

Military officials have acknowledged that the inquiry that failed to substantiate the allegations against Hyten also did not find any evidence that Spletstoser’s account was untrue. But Spletstoser insists the Pentagon and the Air Force mishandled the case. She claimed in the POLITICO interview that contrary to the Pentagon's statement, "there was sufficient evidence to prefer charges for felony sex assault and a myriad of other UCMJ offenses."

Some Democrats on the committee have expressed concern about confirming Hyten. “We'll have to listen carefully to what he has to say, but based on the information so far, I would have trouble supporting his nomination,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said on Monday.

A spokesperson for Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) also reiterated she opposes Hyten's nomination and believes the committee should delay his confirmation process "given the disturbing allegations and the open questions about the process in this case."

The GOP seems far less worried about the colonel's allegations against Hyten — barring any new revelations.

"I'm not at all concerned about it," said freshman Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). "And if something comes up before the vote that can corroborate, then we should take another look.”

"I know that I've reached a point after almost five hours of testimony and hearing the accuser and the accused that I feel comfortable moving forward with the hearing tomorrow," said Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.).

"I think the allegations are unfounded and I've looked at them very carefully," added Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

Spletstoser's questioning from committee lawyers last week in a hearing Spletstoser described as well-attended, may offer a preview of how the panel will handle the allegations when publicly questioning Hyten.

“They asked some very detailed and pointed questions and we stayed 3 1/2 hours to answer all their questions,” she recalled, saying the committee members passed follow-up questions to the two counsels through staffers.

The senators “were listening and asking additional follow-on questions,” she said. “They took it seriously and seemed to find me credible, but beyond that, I don’t know.”

But she said she’s pessimistic that either the administration will withdraw Hyten’s nomination before Tuesday's hearing or that lawmakers will vote him down. “We’ve been hoping for common sense to prevail for months now, but that hasn’t happened, so I don’t expect a lot. I don’t expect anything good,” she said.

“It all seems timed toward doing this mad dash to getting him confirmed," she said. "We’ve thrown protocol out the window. As the victim it’s very disheartening and as a professional military officer it’s appalling.”

Three current and former Defense Department officials also told POLITICO on Monday that the administration is not likely to withdraw the nomination, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

That may be because the Air Force is eager to have one of its own in the vice chairman’s seat, Spletstoser suggested, especially because the Air Force’s candidate for chairman lost out to the Army’s Gen. Mark Milley. But, she said, “There are other qualified people in the Air Force for that job.”

“There’s this claim that there’s not that deep a bench, but I beg to differ. You have a lot of general and flag officers in all the services, and to say this is the only guy capable — I disagree,” she said. “I understand the reasons for wanting him there. I served with him and I remember telling him early on that he’d be a possible candidate” for vice chairman.

But she called on the Trump administration to withdraw the nomination.

“Frankly it’s their moral duty to do so," she said.

Connor O'Brien and Marianne LeVine contributed to this report.