Update at 4:07 p.m. EST to reflect fuller comments from Sen. Jim Inhofe.
WASHINGTON — As lawmakers decide the fate of Gen. John Hyten’s nomination for vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, they met privately Tuesday to interview the woman who accused him of sexually assaulting her, according to two Democratic senators.
Confirmation for Hyten, the chief of U.S. Strategic Command, met with a dramatic development as members of the Senate Armed Services Committee convened in the Senate’s secure facility to question the accuser.
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe confirmed that Hyten, whose nomination was announced in April, is expected to give his testimony to the panel in a closed hearing on Thursday. Inhofe expressed hope Hyten would then provide public testimony as soon as next week.
“I am personally interested in moving forward with him after we have an executive session that members of the committee will have to discuss it,” Inhofe, R-Okla., told reporters Tuesday afternoon, adding that he still believes that the military investigation that cleared Hyten was very thorough.
After one private presentation to the committee’s leadership and a separate presentation to the full panel in recent days, Inhofe had said he did not think it was necessary that he hear directly from Hyten’s accuser. “I can’t recall a better run and more thorough investigation,” Inhofe said Tuesday.
The accuser is reportedly an Army colonel with 28 years of service and a former subordinate of Hyten’s. After she came forward in April, Air Force investigators found insufficient evidence to bring criminal charges against Hyten or to recommend administrative actions.
Exiting Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., said she found the woman to be credible and that the testimony raised new questions about the military investigation that cleared Hyten.
Lawmakers interviewed the woman from roughly 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Tuesday, according to Duckworth. Lawmakers did not ask questions directly but provided them to staff to ask of the woman.
“I’m pleased she was allowed to speak,” Duckworth said. “I thought she conducted herself very professionally, and she was very believable.”
Duckworth said the live testimony delivered more of an impact than video evidence presented in private by military investigators a week earlier.
“The survivor deserves respect and serious consideration, and I will have it very closely in mind; We will be hearing from Gen. Hyten as well,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “It is imperative that we hear from both.
The officer told The Associated Press 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 aides. She said that he tried to derail her military career after she rebuffed him.
The woman served in Iraq and Afghanistan, and was subsequently relieved of her duties while serving on Hyten’s staff, according to The Washington Post.
Aside from the allegations themselves, Duckworth questioned whether the Department of Defense provided Hyten with preferential treatment, as he wasn’t suspended during the investigation and the probe was conducted by Gen. Mike Holmes, the four-star chief of Air Combat Command, who is technically junior to Hyten.
“I still think he was treated differently than some folks in similar circumstances,” she said, “and there was some new information that I didn’t know, that was new to me, that was concerning.”
Gen. Paul Selva, who has served as vice chairman since 2015, is scheduled to retire July 30. Should Hyten’s nomination process be delayed, it would create another empty leadership position in the Pentagon. Among the other jobs that are currently being filled in an acting capacity: deputy secretary of defense, chief management officer and secretary of the Air Force.
Leo Shane III contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.