HOUSTON—Republican U.S. Senators John Cornyn of Texas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska criticized President Donald Trump on March 9 for his imposition of broad tariffs on steel and aluminum and his overall trade policy in unusually strongly worded comments at CERAWeek by IHS Markit.

Cornyn said the president appeared to be acting on “populist impulses that, of course, he ran on” as a presidential candidate. The U.S. senator would have preferred using tariffs against trade partners abusing agreements with the United States.

Regardless, on March 8, Trump imposed a 25% duty on imports of steel and 10% on aluminum. The move has triggered threats of reprisal from trading U.S. trading partners. Canada and Mexico were exempted from the tariffs.

“I hope he could be a little more surgical in the approach,” Cornyn said.

In the course of the first year of the president’s administration, Cornyn and Murkowski said Republicans have found common ground on cutting regulation and taxation policies.

However, one area of disagreement centers on trade.

“I think we’re going to have to continue to work with the president and try to make advances where we can to try to convince him that trade deficits aren’t the be all end all of determining whether trading agreements are good,” he said.

Ongoing renegotiations with North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) among the U.S., Canada and Mexico have concerned Cornyn, particularly in a meeting in which the president mused about simply killing the agreement.

“I’ve been at meetings where the president has said, ‘Well what if I just issue a notice of termination of NAFTA.’ And I said ‘no, no, no, don’t do that,’” Cornyn said. “What goes through his mind is we can’t get the best-negotiated outcome unless we’re willing to walk away.”

Cornyn pointed to the millions of U.S. jobs are dependent on free trade with Mexico and Canada. He also noted that tariffs announced on March 8 granted exemptions to Canada and Mexico, which are perhaps being used as “additional incentive to come to the table on NAFTA.”

Trump has sharply criticized the NAFTA trade agreement with Mexico and Canada but has made limited headway on renegotiating the pact.

“The president feels very strongly that we have lost out on some of these trade agreements,” he said. “I’m sure he’s right on some individual trading relationships. But I would hope that we would not treat every country with of a sort of one-size-fits-all [approach] like we see in this additional tariff on aluminum and steel.”

Asked at the conference if the tariffs took the two senators by surprise, Murkowski simply answered, “yes.”

“This is not coming at a good time for us,” Murkowski said, noting that Alaska is working to build LNG export facilities and pipelines. The tariffs could add hundreds of millions or even half a billion dollars to a planned 800-mile pipeline, she said.

“This is a big deal up north as we’re trying to build out so much of this we’ve been waiting for—whether it is actual pipe itself or infrastructure going into these drilling operations,” she said.

Murkowski added that the tariffs also overshadow the “great news coming out of the U.S. energy sector” and runs counter to efforts made to use the nation’s energy resources to court stronger trading relationships with countries such as South Korea.

“From a trade perspective, these tariffs are now coming behind it,” she said. “It sends a confusing message to our friends and our allies.”

Cornyn said the speed with which the president enacted the tariffs surprised him and speculated Trump “may have done it the way he did it because he didn’t want people to talk him out of it.”

He said Congress needs to stick close to the people talking to the president and make sure their views are heard. He also lamented the loss of Gary Cohn, the White House chief economic adviser, whose resignation came after the tariffs were announced.

“I’m sorry to see Mr. Cohn leave and the ascent to Mr. [Peter] Navarro who I think has a lot of wrong ideas when it comes to trade,” he said. Navarro is an assistant to the president and director of Trade and Industrial Policy.

Cornyn reminded the audience that this is not the first time a president has enacted tariffs. He noted that in the early part of President George W. Bush’s term, tariffs placed on aluminum and steel were enacted but ultimately reversed by the World Trade Organization.

“This is just the beginning of the story,” he said.

Darren Barbee can be reached at dbarbee@hartenergy.com.