The Ohio congressman was the only one of the 10 candidates at the Detroit debate not to place a hand over their heart during "The Star-Spangled Banner" Tuesday night.
Ryan stood with his hands clasped in front.
Critics called Ryan out on social media, saying he was disrespectful and questioning whether it was a protest similar to former NFL player Colin Kaepernick's kneeling during the anthem.
"The View" host Meghan McCain, daughter of war hero and late Sen. John McCain, tweeted "Put your hand over your heart for the star spangled banner Tim Ryan!!!"
Put your hand over your heart for the star spangled banner Tim Ryan!!! #DemocraticDebate— Meghan McCain (@MeghanMcCain) July 31, 2019
Ari Fleischer, White House press secretary under Republican President George W. Bush, said in a tweet, "I guess he's appealing to the Kaepernick wing of the Democratic Party."
Rep. Tim Ryan didn’t put his hand over his heart during the national anthem. I guess he’s appealing to the Kaepernick wing of the Democratic Party.— Ari Fleischer (@AriFleischer) July 31, 2019
Ryan's campaign said in a statement he wasn't protesting and "didn't mean to make any statement."
The campaign called it "a moment of absent-mindedness while on a debate stage that won't happen again."
"Congressman Ryan loves our country and will continue to honor the flag during the anthem in future events, as he has in countless events in the past," the campaign said.