Robert Shiller at China Development Forum

The global economy has been firing on all cylinders in recent months. A trade war could end that strong momentum, but the last year of growth means there’s “a little capacity to absorb” any trade-related jitters, Shiller said.

By that token, he said, Trump’s decision to go on the trade offensive could be deemed “good timing.”

“If he did this during 2009 it would have been catastrophic,” Shiller said. “But I think his timing is just his own personal timing for this: He’s been president for a year, it’s about time he does something that gets people’s excitement going. He has a philosophy of life that that’s what you have to do: If you want to stay famous, celebrity — which he obviously relishes — you’ve got to be constantly creating news.”

On that point, the Nobel Prize winner recalled Trump’s recent Twitter posts about former Vice President Joe Biden. The language of the president’s message, Shiller said, “was like school yard ‘I’m going to beat you up.'”

“It’s totally unbecoming for a president,” he added.

Shiller also questioned the fitness of others in the Trump administration, saying the president “has hired some extremist people.” He cited Peter Navarro, the White House trade advisor who wrote books called “Death by China” and “The Coming China Wars.”

“It seemed to me that no responsible president would give credence to that, but here we are. I think he’s a showman who is doing this for political reasons within the U.S.,” the economist said, pointing to the upcoming midterm elections and Trump’s own attempt to get re-elected in 2020.

—CNBC’s Nyshka Chandran contributed to this report.

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