With his wife of 32 years sitting behind him and his accuser looking on from a short distance away, Air Force Gen. John Hyten told senators that "all the allegations are completely false." Most of the senators on the Armed Services Committee appeared to support him, including Sen. Martha McSally, R-Az., a former fighter pilot who has publicly described her own sexual assault.
Hyten's forceful denial comes after several months delay in the nomination process as senators held five classified sessions, poured over thousands of pages of the investigation and interviewed Hyten and Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser, the officer who made the allegations.
Spletstoser says Hyten, who has been nominated to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances in 2017. "Nothing happened. Ever," Hyten told the committee, adding that the allegations were shown to be false after a "fair and extensive investigation."
The Air Force Office of Special Investigations reviewed the matter and found insufficient evidence to charge Hyten or recommend any administrative punishment. The committee is expected to approve the nomination by the end of the week, but a final Senate vote is unlikely until September, after the August recess. The current vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Paul Selva, retires Wednesday.
Hyten was asked about military issues, including his views on Trump administration efforts to wind down the war in Afghanistan and the need to modernize the nation's nuclear weapons, but a large portion of the hearing focused on the allegations against him.
Many senators hit the issue head-on, asking detailed questions about specific allegations from Spletstoser. Committee members and Hyten avoided criticizing Spletstoser and some appeared troubled by her allegations.
Former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson, who authorized the initial investigation, opened the hearing with an endorsement of Hyten, calling his accuser a "wounded soldier" who might "believe what she is saying is true."
Spletstoser told The Associated Press she was stung by Wilson's remarks. "I was appalled and hurt quite frankly," said Spletstoser, who received a mild head injury while serving in Afghanistan in 2005. "To suggest that I would lie under oath and make up an allegation of sexual assault because of my combat injury is disgusting. If you don't believe me that is your prerogative, but do not dishonor my service to this country."
Spletstoser told the AP that Hyten subjected her to a series of unwanted sexual advances by kissing, hugging and rubbing up against her in 2017 while she was one of his top aides. She said she repeatedly pushed him away and told him to stop, and that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.
Asked about one of the incidents, Hyten denied ever going to her hotel room while they were traveling on business. Members of his security detail, who stay close tabs to him because his job includes overseeing the U.S. nuclear arsenal, corroborated his account of his whereabouts.
McSally said she has "full confidence" in Hyten and believes he is innocent. "This wasn't just a jump ball. Not a he said, she said," McSally said. "Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn't happen in this case."
Several senators questioned Hyten's leadership abilities, particularly since he initially considered Spletstoser a brilliant officer but later had her investigated for being a "toxic leader." Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a retired National Guard commander who disclosed earlier this year she was a survivor of a college sexual assault, said she had concern over Hyten's "judgment, leadership and fitness to serve" in leadership.
Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, also remained skeptical about the assault charges. "While we have not been presented with any corroborating evidence, the lack of it does not necessarily mean that the accusations are untrue," she told Hyten. "Women are assaulted all the time and don't tell anyone. Men assault women all the time and don't leave behind any evidence."
Spletstoser told the AP she didn't report the incidents at the time to avoid embarrassment and out of fear of retaliation. She was also thinking about retiring, and believed Hyten was as well, so she concluded he would not pose a risk to any other service members.
The AP generally does not identify victims of alleged sexual assault, but Spletstoser has allowed her name to be used. She is still in the military and has moved on to a different job. Air Force officials have said that investigators went through 10,000 pages of documents, conducted interviews with as many as 50 people and pursued every lead but did not uncover evidence to support Spletstoser's allegations. But they also said they found no evidence that she was lying.
Senators have consistently criticized the Defense Department over its long and, at times, unsuccessful campaign to decrease the instances of sexual assault, misconduct and harassment across the military. Lawmakers have also criticized the department's handling of assault cases and tried repeatedly to overhaul what some say is a broken system.
They continued that criticism Tuesday, asking Hyten what he will do to get after the problem of sexual assault in the military. He said the Pentagon and Congress must work together to solve the problem.
Associated Press writer Lisa Mascaro contributed to this report.