Even as he defended supporting free-trade agreements as a U.S. House member, Sen. Rob Portman said Tuesday he agrees with “some” of Donald Trump’s positions on trade, such as foreign countries manipulating their currencies to make their products less expensive in the United States.
In a conference call with reporters, Portman, R-Ohio, said “we need to have more fair trade; it ought to be a level playing field. If it’s a level playing field, we’ll be fine in Ohio.”
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But Portman said he opposed Trump’s call for imposing high tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States, saying that “would immediately start a trade. It’s a big mistake.”
Portman appeared to be trying to navigate a difficult course on free trade, which Trump has castigated as costing the United States millions of well-paying manufacturing jobs. At one point during the call, Portman referred to free-trade agreements as “export enhancement agreements.”
International trade is emerging as a major issue in the Senate race between Portman and former Democratic Gov. Ted Strickland. Although as many as 260,000 jobs in Ohio are linked to exports, free trade remains relatively unpopular with many voters.
David Bergstein, a Strickland spokesman, said “Portman is twisting himself into a political pretzel trying to explain his unabashed, decades-long record of supporting unfair, job-killing trade policies that have shipped hundreds of thousands of good-paying jobs overseas.”
As a congressman from Cincinnati, Portman supported the 1993 North American Free Trade Agreement with Mexico and China, and permanent normal trade relations with China in 2000. As U.S. trade representative under President George W. Bush in 2005, Portman helped guide the Central American Free Trade Agreement through Congress.
Portman said the United States needs to “export more. This is where Ted Strickland and I strongly disagree. He has never been for an export enhancement agreement. No support for knocking down barriers to our farmers and our workers and our service providers in Ohio.”
“I am for stopping unfair imports and I have taken the lead on it,” Portman said. “But I am for actually helping Ohio workers export more.”
“I will certainly defend those trade agreements I voted for,” Portman said. “We have trade agreements with about 10 percent of the world and yet we send about 47 percent of our exports to (that) 10 percent of the world.”