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Esper approval likely, but sexual assault allegations slow Joint Chiefs vice chair pick

Kirsten Gillibrand told CQ Roll Call that she would not support even giving Hyten a vote

The Senate Armed Services committee is expected on Thursday to approve Secretary of the Army and Secretary of Defense nominee Mark Esper as the next Pentagon chief. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
The Senate Armed Services committee is expected on Thursday to approve Secretary of the Army and Secretary of Defense nominee Mark Esper as the next Pentagon chief. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)

Updated 7:05 p.m. | The Senate Armed Services Committee, in a closed-door meeting Thursday, is expected to approve the president’s choice for Defense secretary and Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman and to discuss the embattled nomination of the Air Force general tapped to be the military’s No. 2 general, committee members and staff said Wednesday.

The committee will probably vote overwhelmingly to give its consent to Army Secretary Mark Esper becoming the next Pentagon chief, clearing the way for a Senate vote in the coming days to confirm him. The panel is also expected to send to the floor the nomination of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Milley to be the next Joint Chiefs chairman.

But the nomination of Air Force Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, for the job of Joint Chiefs vice chairman faces stiff headwinds after the disclosure this month that Hyten had been accused of sexual assault. A Defense Department probe of the allegation cleared Hyten of wrongdoing.

Nonetheless, most Democratic senators on the committee still have concerns about the case and the conduct of the investigation — some of them deep-seated. As a result, Hyten’s nomination has at least been delayed while those inquiries continue.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, a Democratic presidential candidate who serves on the Armed Services Committee, told CQ Roll Call in a brief interview that she would not support even giving Hyten a vote.

“I’m deeply concerned about the nomination, given the criminal allegations against him and the inappropriate way that the investigation was conducted, as well as the existence of a polygraph test, which we have not seen,” Gillibrand said.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the committee’s top Democrat, told reporters: “We’re taking this very deliberately, step by step.”

Thursday debate

Multiple senators confirmed Wednesday that the committee is likely to discuss the Hyten nomination during Thursday’s markup of Esper’s and Milley’s nominations.

Armed Services Chairman James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma said there would be an announcement about Hyten’s bid after Thursday’s meeting, but he would not characterize it.

Republicans are mostly taking a wait-and-see approach and are not opposing running outstanding questions about Hyten to ground.

“We want to make sure we have a process in place in which we get all of the facts,” said Sen. Mike Rounds of South Dakota, a senior Republican on the committee.

Calls for victim testimony

The vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is a key figure in the group of four-star officers representing the military services and the National Guard who provide national security advice to senior civilians, including the president. The vice chairman is charged with ensuring the services are not developing redundant weapons, among other duties.

Hyten has been a highly acclaimed officer, but his candidacy was thrown into turmoil after the allegations of unwanted contact with a female officer. The officer said Hyten kissed and touched her on nine occasions between February 2017 and February 2018. She also has accused Hyten of trying to harm her professionally after she rebuffed him.

The Air Force Office of Special Investigations cleared Hyten of wrongdoing.

The woman who has accused Hyten of assault is a constituent of Democratic Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a member of the Armed Services Committee. Duckworth said in an interview Wednesday that the committee should hear from the victim if Hyten’s nomination goes forward.

“If there’s going to be a meeting where Gen. Hyten is going to be available to give testimony, then we should offer the same opportunity to his accuser,” Duckworth said. “There’s a lot of things that we have to look at. For example, DOD has treated him differently than other individuals in the same position. There are issues of additional documents that should be made available to us.”

Gillibrand and Duckworth have written the Pentagon demanding answers to some of their questions about the case, as have two other Democrats, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Mazie K. Hirono of Hawaii.

“I have requested additional information, which I have yet to receive,” Hirono told CQ Roll Call.

Defense secretary

Milley’s confirmation hearing on July 11 was well received by Armed Services Committee members of both parties. The senators’ main concern, voiced principally by Democrats, was not about Milley but about the need for the military’s top officer to act as a ballast for a mercurial president.

Esper’s bid to be Defense secretary, meanwhile, appears to be largely unobstructed following a sharp presentation at his Tuesday confirmation hearing.

The only obstacle in committee so far appears to be from Democratic presidential contenders. Warren told reporters Wednesday that she intends to oppose Esper’s nomination. And Gillibrand also has made a point of voting against most of Trump’s nominees.

Warren’s opposition was clear at the confirmation hearing when she accused Esper of “corruption” for declining to forswear seeking a waiver from a recusal in matters pertaining to Raytheon, his former employer, and for declining to promise not to work for the company until four years after he leaves the Pentagon.

The vote on Esper’s nomination is contingent on the committee’s expected receipt by the time of the meeting of written answers from the nominee to a set of questions, a committee spokeswoman said Wednesday night.

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Correction, July 17, 5:48 p.m. | An earlier version of this story misstated John Hyten’s first name. 

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