March 9, 2018 / 5:53 PM / 3 months ago

CERAWEEK-U.S. senators urge Trump to be more 'surgical' on trade

(Adds details from speech in Houston)

By Ernest Scheyder

HOUSTON, March 9 (Reuters) - Two influential U.S. senators pushed President Donald Trump on Friday to be more nuanced in his approach to trade in the wake of his controversial decision to impose tariffs on most steel and aluminum imports.

Republicans John Cornyn of Texas and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska made their remarks at an energy industry gathering in Houston, a day after Trump imposed tariffs of 25 percent on steel and 10 percent for aluminum, but exempted Canada and Mexico. The president offered the possibility of excluding other allies in the future.

More politicians from both major U.S. political parties, as well as executives across industry sectors, have expressed concern that the tariffs could spark a global trade conflict and ravage the recovering U.S. economy.

Cornyn, Senate majority whip, advised Trump to be more “surgical” rather than treat most countries with the same approach.

“I would hope that we would not treat every country like a one size fits all,” Cornyn said at the CERAWeek conference in Houston, one of the largest gatherings of energy industry executives.

Murkowski, head of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, said the tariffs caught her by surprise and advised Trump: “Let’s be cautious here.”

The tariffs, Murkowski said, “are not coming at a good time for us” given the materials that must be purchased to accomplish Trump’s push to spend more than $1 trillion to repair the U.S. infrastructure network.

On Thursday, U.S. Senator Jeff Flake, a Republican of Arizona, said he would introduce a bill to nullify Trump’s tariffs, warning that “Congress cannot be complicit as the administration courts economic disaster.”

Cornyn and Murkowski advised Trump to seek better advice on trade and also communicate his decisions better.

Cornyn said he was “sorry to see” Gary Cohn resign this week as the president’s top economic adviser. He said economist Peter Navarro, another Trump adviser who favors protectionist measures and has been characterized as anti-China, “has a lot of wrong ideas when it comes to trade.”

Murkowski said Trump and the White House must do a better job of making policy and communicating changes to Congress and the public.

“I’m not one that believes that tweeting is a holistic communications strategy,” Murkowski told reporters after her speech. Trump regularly announces policy changes on the Twitter Inc social media platform.

The pair said they agreed with Trump that changes should be made to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), though both said they disagreed with scrapping the pact entirely. (Reporting by Ernest Scheyder; Editing by David Gregorio)

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