GOP Sen. Rob Portman warns tariffs could 'spiral,' says US needs to be careful

  • There needs to be a level playing field in trade, Sen. Rob Portman says.
  • However, he sees risks with the way President Trump is trying to achieve that goal.
  • Portman supports targeted tariffs based on unfair trade practices.

There needs to be a level playing field in the global trade system, but there are risks with the way President Donald Trump is attempting to achieve that goal, Sen. Rob Portman told CNBC on Wednesday.

Trump recently imposed tariffs on steel and aluminum from imports from Canada, Mexico and the European Union. The move angered U.S. allies and promoted retaliatory measures.

"The problem is it could result in a spiraling of more trade barriers, including higher tariffs. That's the trick," said Portman, a Republican representing Ohio.

On Wednesday, top White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters that Trump should not be held responsible for the escalating tensions.

"Don't blame Trump. Blame the nations that have broken away" from fair trade practices, he said. The global trade system "is broken and President Trump is trying to fix it. And that's the key point," Kudlow added.

Portman told "Power Lunch" he believes Trump's ultimate goal is the "right one."

The president wants to "shake things up and ensure that we can have more of a fair shake for our workers and our exporters, our service providers, our farmers," he said.

However, "the risk is in the process you may end up with countries — as Canada is now saying they are doing, the EU is doing — raising their own tariffs and you get this sort of a spiral that some have called a trade war, which of course benefits nobody."

Portman is in favor of targeted tariffs, which he said will benefit steelworkers in Ohio and the rest of the country. Those levies would be based on unfair trade, he said.

"It's not just saying we're going to raise tariffs just because we can but we're saying we're doing it because you are dumping or you are subsidizing and that's unfair under our laws and under the international trading system," he said.

It's all about a balance, he added. "You have to end up with a system where you are actually reducing barriers overall."