WASHINGTON -- In his most direct comments to date on the issue, Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) came out strongly against the Confederate flag on Wednesday, telling a large gathering of Georgetown University students that the flag divides the country and "does insult."
Ryan was at Georgetown for yet another leg in his ongoing media tour seemingly meant to contrast House Republicans with the Republicans running for president, but it was during a question-and-answer session with students that the Confederate flag came up.
A Georgetown student asked about a recent decision from House Administration Committee Chairwoman Candice Miller (R-Mich.) to replace the state flags that hang in a Capitol hallway with images of state and territory commemorative coins.
At issue in that decision -- as Miller noted in a statement -- was Mississippi's state flag, which features an image of the Confederate battle symbol in the top left corner.
“Given the controversy surrounding Confederate imagery, I decided to install a new display,” Miller said. “I am well aware of how many Americans negatively view the Confederate flag, and, personally, I am very sympathetic to these views."
The flag controversy actually helped to derail the appropriations process last July when Democrats offered an amendment to remove any reprinting of the Confederate symbol from the Capitol. (The Mississippi state flag, hanging in an underground tunnel between the Capitol and a House office building, was the only such symbol affected by the amendment.)
Republicans wanted to avoid a fight that could be viewed as a proxy to the overall Confederate flag controversy. Democrats forced the House to vote anyway. But looking to avoid any more votes on the matter, Republicans didn't allow any more bills where Democrats could offer the amendment to come to the floor.
Miller's decision to change the flag display to coins came last week, in advance of appropriations bills coming to the House floor and before renovations in that hallway are complete. (The flags were removed in September to accommodate the construction.)
On Wednesday, a student asked Ryan about the decision to keep the Mississippi state flag off the Capitol walls, with the student calling that decision "renewed, northern Republican reconstruction" and "the erasure of Southern symbols, as well as ostracization of Southern voters by the GOP."
Ryan began by almost laughing off that characterization. "Hmm," Ryan said. "I never looked at it that way."
"Northern re—" Ryan continued, thinking better of repeating the phrase. "That's interesting. Yeah, I'm from Wisconsin, so guilty as a northerner."
Ryan then repeated a line he told reporters last week -- that he supported Miller's decision to go with images of state coins in the Capitol hallway. But he went further.
"We discussed it," Ryan said of Miller's decision. "And I thought it was the right thing to do."
He noted that Mississippi is still going to be represented -- as is every other state and territory -- because of the coin reprintings, and then he offered his sternest rebuke of the Confederate flag.
"This symbol does insult," Ryan said. "This symbol, I think, does more to divide this country than to unify this country."
The speaker said he believes in states' rights.
"But I got to tell you," Ryan said, "if, in the Capitol, we're going to have symbols, we're going to have symbols that unify people, that don't divide people, and that's just the way we think."