The Senate confirmed Air Force Gen. John Hyten to be the military’s second-highest ranking official Thursday after a monthslong delay as senators weighed sexual assault allegations made by a former subordinate.
Senators voted 75-22 to confirm Hyten to be vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Twenty-two Democrats and independent Angus King of Maine joined Republicans in supporting Hyten. Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa was the only Republican who opposed Hyten.
Now the head of the U.S. Strategic Command, Hyten was accused of sexual assault by Army Col. Kathryn Spletstoser. An Air Force investigation concluded there wasn’t sufficient evidence to back up the accusation and Hyten wasn’t charged.
The Senate Armed Services Committee conducted its own review of the allegations and the Air Force’s investigation, which included interviews with Spletstoser and Hyten. The panel approved Hyten’s nomination in a 20-7 vote on July 31.
Hyten received high-profile backing during his July confirmation hearing, including from former Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson and Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) — a retired Air Force pilot who revealed this year that she was raped by a superior officer — who said the accusations were baseless.
On the floor Thursday, Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) praised the Air Force investigation and his own committee’s probe into Hyten. He called confirmation of Hyten, who oversees the U.S. nuclear arsenal at Strategic Command, “overdue.”
“We can’t stop a nomination from going forward on unproven allegations, especially ones we examined with the utmost of care and closest scrutiny and determined not to have merit,” Inhofe said.
Critics of the investigation on and off Capitol Hill charge Hyten was treated preferentially because of his four-star rank. They contend, among other issues, that an officer senior to Hyten should have overseen the case, which was handled by Air Combat Command head Gen. James Holmes, who is technically junior to Hyten.
In a statement this week ahead of the vote, Spletstoser criticized the service’s investigation and said the confirmation process “should not be a popularity contest.”
“Unfortunately, my experience has only served to demonstrate how unequipped the military still is to deal with sexual assault,” Spletstoser said. “The process for seeking justice has been a sham; I have not had the opportunity to tell my story publicly and have been subject to a rushed and incomplete inquiry overseen by an officer junior in rank to General Hyten.”
Spletstoser was relieved following a probe into complaints that she fostered a toxic work environment.
Though most Armed Services members backed the Air Force’s conclusions, the four-star general nonetheless faced criticism over why he didn’t act earlier on complaints about Spletstoser’s leadership. Ernst, the lone Republican “no” vote who also opposed Hyten in the July committee vote, said the general “exhibited a lack of leadership” by not acting earlier.
No senators spoke in opposition to Hyten ahead of Thursday’s vote.
The vote gives the Joint Chiefs its first vice chairman in nearly two months. The post has been vacant since Air Force Gen. Paul Selva retired in July.
Hyten’s confirmation is another step toward Pentagon leaders’ goal of rounding out its senior uniform and civilian ranks. The Senate swiftly confirmed Mark Esper as Defense secretary and David Norquist as his deputy in July. And in recent months, Army Gen. Mark Milley was confirmed to be the next chairman of the Joint Chiefs, along with new top officers in the Army, Navy and Marine Corps. Milley takes over for retiring Marine Gen. Joe Dunford in October.
Senators are still considering a handful of senior Pentagon nominees, including Ryan McCarthy to be Army secretary and Barbara Barrett to be the top civilian leader of the Air Force.
Article originally published on POLITICO Magazine