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Hurricane Harvey Intensifies to Category 4; Gorka Resigns; Trump Pardons Arpaio. Aired 8-9p ET

Aired August 25, 2017 - 20:00   ET



JOHN BERMAN, CNN HOST: All right. Good evening. John Berman here, in for Anderson.

Right now, millions of people along the Texas coast are facing the most serious storm they have seen in decades. Hurricane Harvey was just upgraded to a category 4 storm. It is delivering not only winds but the potential of feet of rain. Feet, not inches. And a 12-foot storm surge, as well. And the possibility the storm may linger for days.

This one, said a top National Hurricane Center official, is going to be a marathon, a multiday event, a significant disaster. And late this evening, city officials in Rockport, Texas, had a warning that really says it all, advising anyone who has not left by now to write their name and Social Security on their arm to help recovery crews identify them later should they discover the body.

We have reporters and meteorologists in some of the most vulnerable spots tonight, and new information just in from the National Weather Center that our Chad Myers is going through right now. I want to start off with CNN's Martin Savidge, feeling the worst of it in Corpus Christi.

Martin, what is the latest right now?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: John, we're under an extreme wind warning, which means that we could see wind speeds here of up to 145 miles an hour. If that happens, I wouldn't be standing. But the wind has just continued to blast Corpus Christi and it only grows more and more intense.

The trees here are bending to the point where you swear they're going the snap. The rain is just now a fog almost, because it's become so mystified by the heavy winds and the gusts that hit you are almost like a physical punch. On top of that, there's just the steady roar that you get with the ocean, the wind, the trees. It is a massive amount of energy that's being unleashed right now, and it's in a level that people refer back to say Katrina or in this area, Celia, which was a hurricane that had devastating effects in 1970.

The real concern, though, is not just the wind event. It just continued to grow worse, and, of course, the rain. That's going to linger for days. There was not a mandatory evacuation order here. Many people did decide to go on their own accord. That was yesterday.

You could see a long line of cars going north on 37. The rest are just going to have to shelter in place. There's no way anyone should be out in this kind of weather trying to evacuate, and the emergency services have said that they are not responding to emergency calls unless it is absolutely life and death.

And even then they'll make it on a call by call basis. The storm surge, six to 12 feet, could be a serious problem for the low-lying area for Corpus Christi. We're in for a very tough night, John, and it's only getting worse.

BERMAN: And, Martin, it does look brutal where you are. If you can still hear me, almost unbelievably behind you, as you were speaking, I saw two cars driving by. As you said, the evacuation order was not mandatory, but is it too late for people to get out now if they're still there?

SAVIDGE: These are sightseers for the most part. I mean, as hard it is to believe with a category 4 storm. And that is nothing to sight- see about. There are people that are still driving about in this, just no accounting for them.

But the truth is, disaster can come in a heart beat. A tree branch that breaks loose, part of a building, any small piece of debris because becomes a lethal missile in this kind of wind. It cannot only go through a person, but shatter and windshield and change lives in a second. That's the reason the first responders won't even go out in this. It just is not safe to be driving about, John.

BERMAN: And as you said, another car drove behind you. Martin, the conditions in the hours ahead, is the worst still to come here?

SAVIDGE: It is in Corpus Christi. I mean, it is for all of south Texas, because once the wind abates, and that's going to be a very slow process, so the wind is going to continue to blow, but the ground becomes super saturated, you have a problem of problems with that, especially trees coming down. But that after the wind finally does go away, this storm is just going to linger in this whole area.

And the amounts of rain -- sorry, the amounts of rain that are anticipated is measured not in inches but by feet. And that kind of water buildup on top of what they've already had is damage. Most folks can't imagine what it's going to be like, 900 first responders standing by for search and rescue efforts the moment this storm abates. But who knows exactly when that will be -- John.

BERMAN: And talk to me about the storm surge, Martin. You did mention that. It could be, you know, 10, 12 feet we understand in some parts of the Gulf Coast. Would that be enough to cover for instance where you are?

[20:05:02] Are there low lying areas in Corpus Christi in particular concern?

SAVIDGE: There are low-lying areas. Here, we should be all right, assuming that it really doesn't go above that. So, this is about some of the highest area you'll find here. But if you go out on Padre Island, some of the other islands out here in the barrier areas, you talk 12 feet, that's over some of those areas.

So, there are certain areas where the max is about nine feet, which means that you are clearly going to have large areas totally inundated with water. The difficulty is, as more of that water falls from the sky, it's just going to continue. And we're talking about the long- term possibility of large areas covered in water. That means relief efforts can't get in.

It means that people who are trapped can't get out. It becomes a Katrina-like situation again. I'm not saying this is a Katrina. Let's not go there just yet.

But the way that they describe it, the language of the National Weather Service uses and the way this storm continues to blast, it's language we haven't heard since Katrina.

BERMAN: All right. Martin Savidge for us in Corpus Christi right now. And, again, please do know, you can see how tough it is for Martin to stand out there. The worse is still to come where Martin is standing right now.

With us on the phone from that city, the mayor of Corpus Christi, Joe McComb.

Mayor McComb, thank you so much for being with us. We just spoke to our Martin Savidge on the streets right now. What is the biggest concern you have for your city?

MAYOR JOE MCCOMB, CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS (via telephone): Obviously, it's water, flooding. You know, we've not had a rain event like this with the threat of 10 to 12 foot storm surge plus 20, 30 inches of rain, because our drainage goes into the Laguna Madre and into the bays. So, it doesn't have anywhere to go and it's being pushed back up the drainage system, that's going to back it up throughout the city and slow down the process. (INAUDIBLE) we don't drain real fast to begin with.

But so far, things seem to be going according to the plan that we had in terms of providing service, getting people that wanted to help, getting people to some shelters, getting evacuated, that's all taken place. We talked with people in San Antonio, the mayor. They assured us that they have a lot of Corpus Christi folks up there and taking care of them.

And I'm sitting here and looking out my window, we've had electricity blink a couple of times, it's come back on, but at some point, we'll lose it.

BERMAN: Yes, some point probably soon, Mr. Mayor, as you well, the intensity raised to a category 4 storm. I know the evacuations were not mandatory in your city, but as we were talking to Martin Savidge, we saw several people drive by in cars, sightseers, Martin said. What is your message to those folks and to people who might have decided to ride out this storm in their homes?

MCCOMB: Well, they want to ride it out in their homes, you know, that's fine. I certainly don't think it's good judgment to be out on the treatments driving around, because the wind could broadside a car, lose traction and cause a wreck or worse. And -- but it's just staying in shelters, wherever you are, and just wait for it to pass.

Our goal is to make sure we don't have any fatalities result of this hurricane. Reports I've heard, most fatalities as a result of the hurricane is because of a drowning and bloods. So that's why we encouraged and pushed people on islands, Padre Island, Mustang Island, North Beach, to seek higher ground because the water is rising rapidly, moving quickly. It's just not a good combination for people to be in.

BERMAN: Not at all.

MCCOMB: We hope they're paying attention. We can't force them to leave. But I think it's an exercise in poor judgment if they're driving around.

BERMAN: Category 4 storm bringing those high winds, along with a storm surge that could reach 12 feet, followed by days of rain that could dump another two to three feet. This will be a very difficult time for you, Mayor McComb. Thank you so much for being with us. Our thoughts are with you. Stay safe, please.

MCCOMB: We appreciate it. We're going to stay the course and follow our plan. And hopefully it will be a successful one.

BERMAN: All right. Thank you, Mayor.

MCCOMB: Thank you.

BERMAN: I want to go to CNN's Chad Myers in our weather center now. We have new information just out on this storm.

[20:10:00] Chad, what's the latest?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: The Hurricane Center did raise after they raise from category three to category four, they raised the potential surge to 13 feet from 12. I know that's not a big deal unless you live at 12 1/2 feet, and then that is a big deal.

Here's another answer to your question you asked earlier, John, why don't you want to heave now? It's because if a power pole falls in front of you, there are likely trees and power poles falling everywhere, you try to turn around, and one falls behind you, you're stuck on that road and you can't get out. You can't go anywhere, and you're going to ride out a cat 4 hurricane in a car? That's a really bad idea, because that car is going to get picked up by these flood waters and moved away.

Even where our Marty Savidge is, he's about 16 feet above sea level, we knew that was a good number, but behind the hotel it's 4 feet above sea level. That's a bad numbers. So, it's likely even where we are here, our truck will be surrounded with water, at least for a while, until it finally does drain off.

Here's something else about how much rain is going to come down. Someone I respect very much just tweeted, Dr. Marshal Sheppard, he's a former president of the American Meteorological Society. He's a professor at Georgia. This keeps getting worse when I think it cannot. And that's what he thinks about this storm, because it just keeps getting worse.

The storm is staying over very warm water, Gulf of Mexico, 86 degrees, and it's getting bigger. It's not only getting a stronger wind field, but it's bigger width wise. So, we're affecting from Lake Charles to Houston to Galveston to Beaumont, all the way down to Brownsville, and it's going to be with us all night long. In fact, unfortunately, we may be here next Friday, still talking about a storm that hasn't left Texas yet.

BERMAN: All right. Chad Myers, thank you very much. We'll come back to you because of -- all right, we do have some breaking news we want to get to.

In the face of this storm, the most powerful storm to hit Texas in decades, one of the most powerful storms to hit the United States in decades, the president has chosen this time to issue a very controversial decision, a pardon of a very controversial figure.

CNN's Sara Murray joins me now with the latest on this.

Sara, Joe Arpaio pardoned.

SARA MURRAY, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: That is right, John. The president has decided, the White House just released a statement saying the president has decided to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona.

Obviously, this was very controversial. They made a big deal about the fact that the president was not going to do it when he was in Phoenix, Arizona, for a rally, although while he was on stage, Trump hinted that he believed Arpaio would be fine in the long run and, in fact, we learned earlier this week that the White House had paperwork ready for this pardon.

Now, in this statement, the White House lays out Arpaio's history of military service, his career in law enforcement, and I just want to read you the last line of it. In it, the president says: Sheriff Joe Arpaio is now 85 years old and after more than 50 years of admirable service to our nation, he's a worthy candidate for a presidential pardon.

Now, the reason he needs a presidential pardon is because a court held him in a criminal contempt for violating a judge's order in a racial profiling case, and for continuing to target immigrants in terms of traffic stops. This comes at a time when President Trump is under fire for race relation. People are wondering in the wake of his comments in Charlottesville, equivocating white supremacists with the counter protesters who were there, where the president stands on these issues. So, in many ways, people felt this was not the right time for the

president to make this move. I can tell you that I spoke to some of the president's supporters in Phoenix, and they said they were big fans of Sheriff Joe. They felt like he should be pardoned. But doing it at this point, one person told me, would be political suicide.

Obviously, the president has decided to go forward with that anyway. But you can imagine it will be plenty of criticism awaiting.

BERMAN: You know, and, Sara Murray, people talk about Friday evening, or Friday night news dumps. This isn't just a Friday night news dump. This is a Friday night news dump in the middle of a huge hurricane.

Any sense that this was going to happen either way? I know the White House had been preparing for this, but why did they decide now?

MURRAY: Well, I can tell you that I was told even before this Phoenix rally that look, the president wants to do this. He does really want to pardon him. And so, we don't know if it's going to happen today. But this is something that has been on the president's mind.

And so, look, what better way to bury controversial news than beneath a category 4 hurricane. I think you're seeing a traditional Friday news dump. It's worth noting, John, that this White House has sort of turned this into a regular thing. They've been firing top staffers on Friday evening on the regular lately. So, they've certainly gotten into this rhythm of taking bad news, releasing it late on Friday night and hoping it blows over by Monday. We will see if that happens in this week.

BERMAN: And I do think it's important to remind people, I'm not sure you mentioned it before -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio not just controversial because of the immigration measures he has taken, but he was also a devoted birther. He was also one of the people very involved with what the president or then just candidate or citizen Donald Trump was, suggesting that Barack Obama was not born in the United States. Joe Arpaio had investigators searching for the birth certificate of the president, for instance. So, Sheriff Arpaio connected to that.

Is that some connection, a connection that anyone in the White House is concerned about?

MURRAY: Well, it's not clear why the president and Sheriff Joe sort of developed this close relationship. But we know they did, and we know they talked. We know that Sheriff Joe was kind of staple with the president on the campaign trail.

But again, you point out this birther thing. The timing of this is just terrible for president Trump. People are questioning what his view is of race relations in America, particularly in the wake of those comments in Charlottesville and we saw him when he was the president and on stage in Phoenix angry about the fact that anyone would suggest that he might be a racist, that anyone would suggest he was equivocating white supremacists with counter-protesters.

Well, he did do that. He did equivocate white supremacists with counter-protesters. So, if you're a person in this country concerned where our president stands on race relations, I don't think watching this pardon is going to make you feel much better about the situation, John.

BERMAN: All right. Sara Murray for us at the White House. You're talking about whether or not he equivocated white supremacists with the other marchers. Gary Cohn, by the way, his own economic advisor, suggested that he thought the president did today with an interview to "The Financial Times".

Joining us to talk about this news, this Friday night stunning, in the middle of a hurricane news dump, Republican strategist Alice Stewart. And on the phone, Republican strategist Ana Navarro.

Ana, let me first go to you. You, of course, you know, worked in Latino outreach for Senator John McCain when he was running for president. What is your reaction to this news of the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio?

ANA NAVARRO, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR (via telephone): You know, John, part of me is not surprised. At this point, I don't expect anything positive out of Donald Trump. Part of me is shocked, shocked that in a week where there's been the backlash after Charlottesville, in a week where he just now signed the order banning transgenders, it's like this guy all he wants to do is represent the 34 percent base.

He's not the president of the United States of America. He's the president of the divided states of America. All he wants to do is pit Americans versus Americans. He has got to know what it means to the Latino community, to most of us in the Latino community, to pardon Joe Arpaio. It is a slap in the face for most Latinos.

This man has served his career on being a racist, discriminatory, a guy who does racial profiling. He is symbolic of attacks on the Hispanic and immigrant and Latino community of Arizona. What he has done today, Donald Trump, is another slap in the face to the Latino community.

BERMAN: You know, Alice Stewart, who is here with me in New York.

You know, Ana's opinion there is clearly something that the White House knows or knew going in this decision. So make the White House case here, why do this? What does Trump get out of this?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, first and foremost, you have to remember Sheriff Joe Arpaio was an early supporter of President Trump, and they both share the same views on being tough on immigration and building the wall and securing our boarders, and that had a big factor in this.

But with regard to the charges against the sheriff, President Trump has always said he was simply doing his job. This was part of his job, enforcing immigration laws. Clearly, it was against the law and he was found guilty. But it's always been known that the president was going to do this. He felt this was simply part of the sheriff carrying out the duties as sheriff, and this was simply a matter of time.

As he said the other night, that he felt as though the sheriff didn't have anything to worry about. But he didn't want to do it that night, when he was in Arizona, he didn't want to cause any trouble. But, you know, the White House statement, they said, look, he's 85 years old. He has 50 years of service to this country. And he is deserving of a presidential pardon.

Look, this is certainly that's going to cause a lot of outrage and a lot of controversy from some people. But anyone who thought this wasn't going to happen when this came about would be sadly mistaken.

BERMAN: And the message specifically to his core supporters who stood with him through his reaction to Charlottesville.

STEWART: Absolutely. The two of them share similar views on a lot of issues, specifically with immigration and specifically with being tough on crime and the sheriff is known as being America's toughest sheriff. He had very controversial views and how he went about enforcing the law in Arizona, having tent cities, and the way he treated people that he had under his care and custody.

But look, they shared similar views, and simply the fact that he was such an early supporter of Trump and did support his position on building the wall and tough enforcement, and weeding out illegal immigrants into this country, this is certainly --

[20:20:03] BERMAN: I will say, you know, if the White House is so proud of it, which they are, why dump it on a Friday night while a hurricane is hitting? That might indicate another feeling toward it.

Ana Navarro, we're also getting word that the president may be close to making a decision on DACA, what to do about DREAMers, these are the kids of people who crossed the border illegally and had been raised in this country. President Obama deemed that they could live here legally. You know, the president may change that policy, one possibility, he would grandfather people in the country right now and just ban future DREAMers, as it were.

The combination of these things, the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and this DACA, if it comes out, what's the significance?

NAVARRO: Look, the significance for the immigrant community is ginormous. My heart bleeds for those DREAM Act kids living such an uncertain future right now, that are so worried. These are kids that are American in every way but one, legally. These are kids that want to contribute to this country.

They are among the best, very best of this country. So, what I would say is, the United States Congress, the Senate, the House of Representatives act -- get off your back and act. It's time that you pass legislation. It is unconscionable to have those children be subject to the uncertainty and whim and pandering to a base of Donald Trump.

The Congress of the United States has the duty to act. If they don't want to see this happen, if they don't want to see families separated, if they don't want to see the economy affected by those DREAM Act kids being denied their dreams, then Congress better act. They are a co- equal branch. They have got to stop kowtowing, the Republican Congress.

I am calling on Paul Ryan, who you remember in a town hall on CNN, he told a dream act person she had nothing to worry about. Calling on Paul, on Mitch McConnell, on Lindsey Graham, on John McCain, on John Cornyn, on all those senators and all those Congress people that know this is the right thing to do, not allow Trump to do this.

It should be done legislatively. It should not be done by executive order. We need to figure out a way to do a compassionate and fair way to treat those young people.

BERMAN: And, Ana, back to Sheriff Joe Arpaio. You know, I got this note at 8:04 p.m., when CNN learned that the president had decided to pardon the sheriff. What do you make of the timing on a Friday night during a hurricane?

NAVARRO: I think again, it's nothing but yet another bone that this president is throwing to the 34 percent, another bone that he's throwing to his base, while antagonizing so many other Americans, while slapping so many other Americans in the face, while leaving so many Americans feeling like they are not represented by Donald Trump. And I think they're doing at this time because it gets him the right attention from the part that he wants, while the rest of us are horrified for the people of Texas who are about to get barrel upon by a hurricane.

BERMAN: All right. Guys, with me on the phone right now, Jonathan Turley, you know, constitutional legal scholar, law professor.

Jonathan, thank you so much for being with us. There is no disputing that the president has absolute power to issue pardons, correct?

JONATHAN TURLEY, CONSTITUTIONAL LEGAL SCHOLAR (via telephone): That's correct. It's virtually unreviewable. The only limitation on presidential pardons that deals with impeachment.

BERMAN: Of course, what the president has said is that he believes Sheriff Joe Arpaio was just enforcing the law as he saw it, cracking down on immigrants. That's not what the courts in Arizona found, though.

TURLEY: No, various judges looked at this case and didn't see any merit to that argument. The sheriff showed what I think was uniformly viewed by the court as open contempt for the authority of the court. He was told to stop these arrests. He didn't do it. And he rather publicly adopted a position of obstruction.

What's odd about this, is that this is not the type of case that normally warrants presidential intervention. First of all, it's unlikely he would spend time in jail. This is a first offense, and it's relatively minor in the great scheme of things. So, usually, presidents will wait for sentencing and in this type of

case, they tend not to be moved towards a pardon. So this is remarkable on a number of levels.

BERMAN: All right. Jonathan Turley, thank you very much.

I have to go back to the White House now, because this remarkable Friday night continues.

Sara Murray at the White House -- we just got word of a significant White House staff resignation.

[20:25:02] MURRAY: Yes, John. So, Sebastian Gorka has resigned. White House officials are confirming. Now, this is significant in the fact that many of you guys have seen Sebastian Gorka on TV. He was an adviser to the president. He had a habit of making controversial comments, and at times even undermining other members of the Trump administration when he would do these interviews on television.

But one thing that was really notable about him is no one really seemed to know what issues he was working on. When you talked to people working at the National Security Council, they would say that he wasn't involved in discussions. He wasn't really involved in decisions there. And yet he billed himself as a national security adviser to the president.

Now, look, we know that John Kelly, the chief of staff, has sort of been taking a look at everyone's positions in the White House. He's been running through what their job is, whether they are in a good position to serve the president. And so, it's possible this was a mutual decision. We don't have a lot of details yet about why Sebastian Gorka decided to resign tonight.

But, frankly, this is something people have been talking about over the last couple of weeks and certainly a question that got even louder after Steve Bannon was ousted and Sebastian Gorka be the next to leave and now, it seems that is correct.

BERMAN: Look, the chief of staff, John Kelly, one of the things he was said to have been doing was to try to figure out exactly what everyone's job is. It was reported that Sebastian Gorka's was the hardest to find out. So, perhaps not surprising this happened. I guess less surprising this happened on this Friday night, when the White House has chosen to do so much while this hurricane is hitting.

Sara, stand by.

Joining us now on the telephone, the attorney for Sheriff Joe Arpaio, Jack Wilenchik.

Mr. Wilenchik, thank you so much for being with us.

Your reaction to this news that your client has been pardoned?

JACK WILENCHIK, ATTORNEY FOR JOE ARPAIO (via telephone): Yes, thanks for having me. We're very excited. This is the culmination of a lot of hard work and in the end, something that's been very tough for the sheriff to deal with. And we're just very proud to see the president has done the right things.

BERMAN: When did first have contact with the White House on the possibility of a pardon? Did you know this was coming?

WILENCHIK: Well, you know, we've heard it, of course, publicly, for a couple of weeks here that the president was seriously considering doing this. And White House counsel -- the sheriff says -- was in contact with him last week. But today, I was contacted by White House counsel, and he indicated the president had already signed it at approximately 3:00 p.m., which is Pacific Time, so I think around 6:00 Eastern. And he forwarded on to me, and I've got a copy of it right here.

BERMAN: So you were told several hours ago at 3:00 that the pardon had been signed. We only found out about it tonight after 8:00, again, while this hurricane was hitting.

Any sense why the delay between the signing of it, you being notified and then announcing it to the American people?

WILENCHIK: Well, I don't think there's much a delay here. I mean, we haven't even gotten a physical copy. I think they've gone out of their way to email a copy pretty promptly here. It appears it was signed today, 25th of August --


BERMAN: Our connection is not so good. I fear I might lose you right now.

But talk to me about the White House counsel phone confidence with Sheriff Arpaio, what was the nature of that conversation which you said was a week ago?

WILENCHIK: They called him to confirm that he would accept it. It's the same conversation I had today because it's part of the law that a pardon does need to be accepted, and these need to be filed in court in order to become effective. There's a couple cases in history where the person rejected a pardon.

So, the sheriff confirmed he would accept one and I confirmed it today as well.

BERMAN: And just now, now that this is all over, does the sheriff think he broke the law, which the courts in Arizona did deem yes?

WILENCHIK: To this day, we contend and he actually was innocent. You know, if not for this, we pursue appeals. In light of this, what we're going to do is ask the court to dismiss the case, ask for an acquittal, because had this pardon not happened, we would have spent years to fight for a jury and to fight for his innocence. And, frankly, this saves everybody a lot of trouble, and that's what's right.

BERMAN: All right. Thank you so much for being with us.

WILENCHIK: Thank you.

BERMAN: Back on the phone with us, Jonathan Turley, professor of law, a constitutional law expert.

You just heard from the lawyer right there. The process by which this happened, the phone conversation last week between the White House counsel and Sheriff Joe Arpaio himself, which I hadn't heard. That may have been reported, but that was news to me, and then this phone conversation today with the sheriff's attorney. Is that standard operating procedure in this type of incident?

TURLEY: Well, there is a process by which you can seek pardons. There's a pardon attorney in the White House who generally filters through thousands of petitions. Presidents often do not exercise pardon authority very actively at the beginning of their term. It's well known, and I file these things myself, that the best time to ask a president for a pardon is when they're heading out the door.

And so the timing itself is rather fortuitous for the sheriff. It's also fortuitous in the sense that this is a case of not normally worn, this type of intervention. It's also the type of action that probably won't sit well with many judges. This is a president who has had some notable conflicts with judges. He's criticized a couple of judges on a personal level. Many of us have criticized the president for those comments. But it's clear that he doesn't have the best relationship with the judiciary. This is not going to improve that relationship.

I understand Sheriff Arpaio's counsel, who clearly has done a very good job. But very few people saw much merit in the sheriff's position that he was not in contempt.

BERMAN: No, I mean they were clear, the courts in Arizona were clear they felt that it was contempt of court. All right, Jonathan standby, I want to bring in CNN's senior legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin on the phone with us, as well. Jeff, you just heard Jonathan Turley say this was an unusual pardon as far as pardons go, and obviously highly political.

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Yes, I think it is much more a political than a legal act. Most pardons that president's issue go through the Justice Department involve relatively low level people. As President Obama had a major program of trying to commute and pardon the sentence of individuals who had been convicted of low level drug offenses. But this, you know, Joe Arpaio is a deeply controversial figure in Arizona and indeed the whole country. Someone who is the face of extreme immigration enforcement, who was deeply loathed by the Hispanic community in Arizona. And similarly loved by the base of the Republican Party there.

He had been pursued by the Justice Department for years for many civil rights violations, and he was only finally just convicted in this contempt of court case. But, I mean to Joe Arpaio is a very famous, blast, notorious person in Arizona, and someone who is a very high profile supporter of Donald Trump. And Donald Trump was a very high profile supporter of Joe Arpaio.

So this is a very important political act that I think will be one of the defining acts of this presidency, especially as it regards to the Hispanic community.

BERMAN: And Jeffrey, you know, there will be debate -- there is a debate right now about whether or not the president should do this. But there is no debate, I just want to make it clear again, and we mentioned with Jonathan Turley, this is within the president's power.

TOOBIN: I think that the very important point to make John, that the pardon power is one of the few absolute powers that a president has. Pardons cannot be reviewed by the courts, they cannot be overturned by Congress. This is a sole power of the presidency. And it doesn't require that someone be convicted and sentenced to a crime and perhaps the most famous pardon in American history is that by Gerald Ford of Richard Nixon before he was charged with any crime.

So it can be a preemptive pardon, it could be a part before someone was (INAUDIBLE). Joe Arpaio had not been yet sentenced for criminal contempt. So, yu know, you was there -- there can be and will be a debate about whether this pardon was wise or appropriate, but there can't be any debate about whether President Trump had the authority to do it. Clearly he did.

BERMAN: Jeffrey if you will standby for just a moment, Ana Navarro on the phone with still has been listening to this conversation and wanted to jump in. Ana?

NAVARRO: Yes, listen, I think we are not making the connection between the Sebastian Gorka resignation and the Joe Arpaio pardon. There's obviously a political back and forth here. Sebastian Gorka, Steve Bannon being out, that's something that the alt-right base was not going to like at all.

[20:35:10] And so I think it is absolutely not a coincidence that Gorka is out on the same night and Arpaio was pardoned. So he didn't something the base was not going to like, it rid of Gorka who have become very controversial, who had said things that were very divisive. But on the same night, they might be pardoned Joe Arpaio, which is something that that alt-right base sounds like and its going to embrace. I think this is tit for tat. I think this is quid pro quo. I think this is, you know, him trying to erase something that the base was not going to like, was giving them, flowing them a bone that they are going to eat up entirely. There is a absolute prevention (ph), Bannon is out, Gorka is out, Arpaio is pardoned and transgenders are banned from serving. This is no coincidence.

BERMAN: The president as Ana is saying give it and take it away Alice Stewart, again from what Ana calls the 35% his core based, do you think that's a reasonable assertion?

STEWART: Without a doubt. And I think she made a great connection there. Look, tonight, the Trump administration made Chief of Staff Kelly very happy with Sebastien Gorka leaving. He didn't appreciate his policies, he didn't appreciate his nationalist views on many of the issues. And he had been taking a lot of seat since Charlottesville. There are some who took some of his comments as Nazi sympathizer. And he had took a lot of heat which reflected on this administration.

So, this was inevitable, this was a matter of time once Bannon was out of the picture, Sebastian Gorka was next. With regard to the base, yes 30, 35% of the base he is working, the president is working hard to keep that base. With regard to Sheriff Arpaio, and the border and immigration, the CBS poll came out just yesterday, saying that 74% of Republicans want him to build that wall, want him to secure the border. So he is energizing the base, he is keeping its promise that he made on the campaign trail to build that wall, whether we have to shut down the government to do it, because Mexico is clearly not paying for it.

So yes, he is energizing his base, he is throwing a bone to his base, but also his staff in the White House is happy about Gorka. And this was its no surprise that it happened on a Friday night. Unfortunately, it will get lost in the huge news, which is really a concern for this country, which is the hurricane coming. But this is typical of the administration to drop controversial news late on a Friday. But this late on a Friday during a hurricane is really raises a lot of questions.

BERMAN: A hurricane, you know, bearing down right now on the coast of Texas, we have that picture on the screen right there, a category IV storm, with millions in its path and days of perhaps the torrential rain.

Jeffrey Toobin, if you're still on the phone with this, you know, you point out that so often we know and remember the final pardons of a presidency, because sometimes the president try to sneak in the most controversial pardons at the end there. I think I'm right, this is the first pardoned issued by President Trump since he's been in office. So what message does that send, what signal does that send us about how he might use this unquestioned authority going forward?

TOOBIN: Well, you're absolutely right, that it usually, that the controversial pardons usually come at the end. And -- and, you know that the very controversial pardons that Bill Clinton issued at the end of his presidency, including that of mark bridge, who was a fugitive at the time. And Patricia Hurst was pardoned at the end of Bill Clinton's presidency.

But, these suggest that the president is going to use the pardon power in a very political way. That he has not going to just lose it for the low level drug offenders that Barack Obama mostly you know, that President Obama used for his presidency. And I think, you know, it is a power within that the president clearly possesses, there's no doubt about that. And it is something that I think Ana correctly pointed out is something of great interest to his base Joe Arpaio is very popular with the Republican base, and that's who is going to be pleased by this.

And Alice Stewart, you know, you run communications for many a politician in your time. I just don't want to lose sight, I know it's processed, but I don't want to lose sight of the timing here. I don't want to lose sight of the fact that it's after 8:00 on the east coast, and a hurricane is hitting Texas right now. This is a classic news dump.

STEWART: It is classic news dump. And look, he could have done this at the rally when he was in Arizona the other night.

[20:40:01] BERMAN: And just remember Sheriff Joe Arpaio's attorney told us they knew, he knew at 3:00 in the afternoon. So they've been sitting on this according to Sheriff Joe Arpiao's own attorney for five hours.

STEWART: Right. And he -- like we all knew this was going to happen at some point. He could have done it in Arizona and said, you know, threw up the flag for it the other night saying that look, I think he'll be just fine. So we all knew this was going to happen.

From a communications standpoint, if you have a piece of news you know will be extremely controversial and you would like it to die over the weekend, you don't put it out there in the middle of the week, you don't put out there in the morning, you do it on a Friday, ideally would be a holiday weekend. But you do it late on a Friday and hope it gets buried in the news cycle. That's not going to happened with this. This is going to continue to be talked about, this is a huge story.

And as Jeffrey said, this isn't so much a legal issue, this is a political issue. And he is sending a statement that he supports what Sheriff Arpaio did, and he said that all along. And the fact that Arpaio has been so supportive of him from so -- from early on is a big part of this. And Sheriff Arpaio is a very unconventional sheriff. He was unconventional within the Maricopa County and the two of them have that unconventional leader type mentality and this was no surprise this was going to happen.

BERMAN: All right guys, just remember what the president himself said about this when he was in Arizona just Tuesday night at this big rally in Phoenix. He said, he hinted, he really indicated he was going to do this but he was playing cute during his speech. Let's play that sound.


DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF UNITED STATES: Was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job? That's what. He should have had a jury. But you know what, I'll make a prediction. I think he's going to be just fine, OK.


TRUMP: But I won't do it tonight, because I don't want to cause any controversy.


BERMAN: I won't do it tonight, Ana Navarro, because I don't want to cause any controversy. I'll do it Friday night after 8:00.

NAVARRO: Right. And I will do it right after pardoning -- right before announcing that Gorka is out. Not only the timing is no coincidence, not only the two events are no coincidence, the sequence of the two events are no coincidence.

First, he threw them a bone. Then he took that away, you know. First, it was pardoning Arpaio, so the base was celebrating, the base was curing that on, the base was happy with that. And then comes the announcement that Gorka is out. Something that base was not going to like. All of this is masterful work of PR, you know, the art of the PR is what this is. Frankly, I'm surprised that this White House, which has been so discombobulated when it comes to communication for PR, got this one, so (INAUDIBLE), when it comes to pleasing and pandering to the base.

Bottom line is, he doesn't seem to care what the other 65% of Americans think, certainly not what Latinos think, certainly after Charlottesville not with Jewish folks think, not what African- Americans think. Certainly after the transgender order that was done today as well, not what turns, come to think, but he does care enormously about his base. He had spent a lot of political capital. A lot of times we've seen him time and again, (INAUDIBLE) get them ready, make them happy, take decision that they very much like. And I think, you know, that's what his theory his. That 35% of Americans is -- they've got themselves a very active advocate president in Donald Trump. The rest of us, not so much.

BERMAN: Do we still have Sara Murray at the White House right now? While waiting here perhaps, Sara Murray I want to go back to you there, because two questions are related here? Is the White House done tonight? I mean that, you know, these news bits keep coming out. You know, fast and furious. Do you have a sense that they're done tonight or is there a full lead?

And related to that, in terms of the White House staff, we know that Sebastian Gorka is out. Steve Bannon, one week ago tonight was out. Gary Cohn gave a very controversial interview today, said he is reluctant to leave, he's still there now. Any more changes coming the next day?

MURRAY: Well look, this White House obviously doesn't give us a huge heads up on the things, and they never declare a full lid, they all -- they declare a partial lid, which means there could be more statements to come at any time. I think that when you look at Gary Cohn, and you look at Sebastian Gorka, these are two people who are in very different position, part of the issue with Sebastian Gorka. Like I was saying, as people didn't understand what his profile was, they didn't know that he was on TV a lot, he was talking about the president agenda, that President Trump liked seeing his TV appearances.

[20:45:04] But in terms of the work he was doing at the White House, other people who worked on national security issues, said Gorka wasn't involved in those deficiency, wasn't involved in those processes. So they weren't really sure what his actually job was. That very different whether talking about someone like Gary Cohn. Gary Cohn has been a key figure when it comes to shaping the president's plan for tax reform, when it comes to working to begin to roll those out. Now we know that next week is supposed to be a big week when it comes to that issue. The president is supposed to be traveling to Missouri, he's supposed to be talking about it. We're supposed to be getting more specifics from the White House.

So in that sense, it's harder to get rid of someone like Gary Cohn. And our sense today in that White House briefing, you heard Sarah Huckabee Sanders say that Gary Cohn's comments were not necessarily a surprise. He hasn't held back in terms of sharing those feeling with the president, in terms of sharing them with other staffer. Is the president likely to be happy about that? No it certainly not. He does not like to be criticized publicly, we know that, But these are two people who are in very different positions when it comes to their portfolios in the White House, John?

BERMAN: Alice Stewart, the president's approval rating right now 34% in the latest Gallup poll which is awful. I mean, you know, is a gizmo approval rating at any point the presidency, but certainly, you know as many months in as the president is now. Does this combination of moves today, you know, Sebastian Gorka out, Joe Arpaio pardoned, the transgender, you know, ban signed today. Does he think this helps him get above 34%?

STEWART: Based on what he has done over the last few weeks, it doesn't seem to be a factor in what he's doing. Look, politics is about the art of addition, and not subtraction and not saying the same. What he has being doing the last several weeks has been about really energizing his base, really keeping those numbers fall, at really satisfying the people that helped him get elected. And that's great, he needs to keep them on board.

But he also needs to do things that will help expand the base and bring about more people that are still hoping that we can get some legislative accomplishments done. I think that is -- that's going to be a big concern here, when granted -- we knew the Sheriff Arpaio pardon was going to happen. He believes that clearly in his immigration policies. He believes he had a life of exemplary service, not only in the military, but on law enforcement and the DEA. And this was going to happen.

Sebastian Gorka leaving, this was -- we knew this was going to happen when we saw Steve Bannon leaving. This was someone that not only General Kelly, chief of staff, didn't know any longer want there. But Jared Kushner also had concerns with some of the statements that he has made and some of the things he said on television. So between the other folks we have in the White House right now, it was just a matter of time before Gorka was leaving. But I think clearly the fact that this was done on a Friday night hoping it will get lost in the shuffle, simply goes to show that yes, he want to just kind of die on the vine in the news media. And not make an impact with the public. But he needs to start expanding the base and the issues that are important to a lot more people than just his base.

BERMAN: All right joining us now as part of this discussion, Bakari Sellers. Got to say a remarkable 48 minutes we've had right here Bakari from the news that the president issued his first pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the news Sebastian Gorka out at the White House. What do you make of it?

BAKARI SELLERS, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well first, I don't think you get any credit for having a white supremacist or someone who braces a neo-nazi idealogy, leaving or being forced out. You don't get a pat on the back for that. I -- it is interesting to see him leave on this Friday night under the cover of darkness and with enveloped in what is a category 4 hurricane.

What's more concerning though is that the law and order president as Donald Trump has called himself, has pardoned someone who has been convicted, not charged, but convicted with criminal contempt for violation of civil rights, for making -- for allowing his patrols, in violation of a court order, to steadily go out and racially profile Hispanic individuals. I mean I -- Joe Arpaio has racist tendencies. I will stop at that line. And what Donald Trump did is an affront to so many Americans right now today. To put it in context, there are individuals right now, there are immigrants right now in Texas who are afraid to flee their homes and evacuate, because they're afraid of board -- of border patrol and other individuals rounding them up. That is a fear and paranoia.

The person who stoked that fear and paranoia, the person who wrongly ripped people away from their families is Sheriff Joe Arpaio. And now, Donald Trump, the law and order president, without a DOJ recommendation has gone as far as pardoning a man who has racist tendencies. And this last 10 days, last two weeks to Alice's point, he hasn't expanded his base one bit. In fact, I'm going to -- I wouldn't be surprised to see if more jump off that Trump train.

BERMAN: Hey, you know, it hasn't see to be bleeding support yes, at least as far as polls go. I just want to make a point with the president, with the White House says, the president say it clearly Tuesday night, he feels that Sheriff Arpaio was just doing his job, though the court clearly felt otherwise.

[20:50:04] Hang on, guys. I have to go back to the White House, today I'm just getting were Sara Murray has some new details about what's gone down there tonight, Sara?

MURRAY: Well John, this is from our justice reporter Laura Jarrett who is reporting that the Justice Department had no role in Sheriff Joe Arpaio's pardon. But source acknowledge this, that this is the president's pardon. And we know from earlier this week from our reporting earlier this weekend, the president did not go through the typical route, you would go to pardon someone actually the office of pardon attorney at DOJ. Instead, he decided to issue his own pardon under the powers granted to him through the constitution. So, just, you know, sort of another oddity in this process that the president would do this on his own. Would do it days after.

Sara Huckabee Sanders, the press secretary said he wasn't going to announce it at a rally in Phoenix. Then the president went on to hint that it was coming at some point. Look, John, this is clearly something that the president wanted to do. Sources was saying that something that the president was talking about doing even when his aides were saying, he wouldn't announce it at that Phoenix rally is about exactly what President Trump did.

BERMAN: He did, in fact he did. The attorneys for Sheriff Joe Arpaio were told this afternoon, and several hours later, the American public told after 8:00 tonight, and as Sara Murray correctly points out, the White House telling her, Sara Muray and Laura Jarrett, sources indicating the Justice Department was not involved. So the president went outside the normal process, the normal pardon process. It's within his rights to do. But it's not generally the way it's done.

All right guys, stand by. On the phone with us now, Democratic congressman for state of Texas, Joaquin Castro, Congressman your reaction to this pardon?

REP. JOAQUIN CASTRO, (D) TEXAS: The president used his office to part in a bigot tonight. Joe Arpaio really sustains a law enforcement across the country. For years he targeted and harassed Hispanics in Arizona. And he should have served his time. This was wrong for the president to do.

BERMAN: And the White House had said, the president said it Tuesday night that he felt that Sheriff Joe Arpaio was just doing his job.

CASTRO: Well, the courts disagreed on multiple occasions with the president's assessment. And but the president not to go to the Department of Justice and the regular traps of and vetting process for a pardon is just another astonishing oddity of this presidency.

BERMAN: Obviously, Congressman, you are a Democratic. You know, Sheriff Joe Arpaio is not. You are also Hispanic. You know, give us a sense of the view in the Hispanic community of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

CASTRO: Well, I think that obviously he was targeting the Hispanic community in Arizona that bore the brunt of his bigotry and he used his office to basically harass people because of their skin color. But it also be pointed out John, it wasn't just Hispanics who admit up booting him out of office. It was the people of Maricopa County who finally had enough. That includes Whites, Hispanic, African-American and everyone rejected ultimately his practices.

BERMAN: This goes back some time. People might remember the show us your papers. This has to do with the fact that Sheriff Joe Arpaio felt that he could ask people for proof of their legal status in the United States before these folks were charged with any specific or apprehended for any other specific charge just on the basis of suspicion by the officer. The court said he couldn't do that he kept on doing. And then they convicted him of contempt of court. You know, what message you -- go ahead Congressman.

CASTRO: Well I mean that's right, I mean he basically created a situation where if you were a person of a certain skin color in the Phoenix area, then you had to be worried about having to prove your citizenship if you were stopped by a deputy sheriff, for example. And he repeatedly did that even though a court told him to stop. Ordered him to stop. And the reason that he was criminally convicted is because he ignored the judicial branch and he continued to do that even after he was ordered to stop. And today the president of the United States validated that by pardoning him.

BERMAN: And Congressman, just put this in the context of the last two weeks. Not a normal two weeks by any stretch of the imagination. Obviously Charlottesville the president's response to it, then his response to the criticism of his response to it and now he caps it off this Friday night with the pardon of Joe Arpaio.

CASTRO: It has been an extraordinary few weeks including the president's response in Charlottesville. A time when he should have been able to easily stand up there and unite the country and bring people together, he seemed insistent upon continuing to divide people and to take sides with folks like Joe Arpaio as he did today.

BERMAN: And again, you know, just to be clear, you do not doubt or question in any way the president's power, his authority, to do this.

CASTRO: No. It sorts like and fell (ph) the president, any president not just Donald Trump has very wide power to pardon individuals. So there's not been a question about his constitutional authority, but I think it's obviously a very poor decision.

[20:55:14] BERMAN: All right Congressman, thank you so much for being with us. I do have to say obviously you represent the San Antonio area right now. A lot of people have been evacuated to your city to get out of the way of hurricane Harvey, which is bearing down on the coast right now. So our thoughts are with you and your constituents. We will let get you get back to work to serve the citizens of Texas right now who are very much in the eye of the storm.

On the phone with us right now is the ethics adviser to President George Bush, Richard Painter is with us right now. Mr. Painter always a pleasure to have you with us. Your legal expertise here. Again, the president has the power to do this. The power to pardon Sheriff Joe Arpaio, which he did. What is your reaction to the news?

RICHARD PAINTER, ETHICS LAWYER: Well, he has the power -- he has the power anyone he wants other than himself. But this is really quite shocking. 99% of police officers are great police officers. 99% of sheriffs, I mean they put their lives on the line every day for us. You have a very, very small number of cops or bad cops. And Sheriff Joe is one of the worst. Because he would -- systematically discriminating against racial minorities and that's the kind of thing that stirs up a lot of anti-police sentiment that we have going on in various parts of the country. And he disobeyed the order of a court. And this is a country where we have a rule of law. And this is not a Democrat or Republican issue, I've been a republican for 30 years but I'm sure a lot of my friends are Democrats agree with me.

That and, you know, when a judge tell the sheriff to do some, the sheriff got to do it. And contempt of court is a crime. And the president of the United States should not be giving out a pardon to a lawless sheriff who conducted himself this way. It's really quite shocking. And this is an attempt to appeal to a very small percentage of American people who favor racial discrimination, discrimination against black and Mexicans and others. And that's not the Republican Party of today. That may be the direction of so-called alt-right wants to take us. But that's nail (ph) fallacious element, that not the Republican Party today. That's not America. So I'm -- I'm really very troubled by this. This is a very, very bad decision for the president.

BERMAN: So Richard Painter, I hear, you know, I can hear in what you're saying right now you don't have a very high opinion of Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I don't know how closely you've had a chance to look at the case, the legal process in Arizona that earned him the conviction for contempt of court. Was there anything unusual about it? Anything that might, you know, beg a second look or have the White House say, hey, this wasn't done right. Maybe he deserves a pardon?

PAINTER: Well, I haven't been through the record. But that's the role of the Department of Justice when they review requests for pardon, there's a system for this, and that obviously want done. This is a decision made by political operatives in the White House and the president and wanted to appeal to the far-right base. They also fortunately fired Sebastian Gorka who was a complete buffoon (ph) and so the news report, maybe he's got to be going. So maybe they have to throw a bone to the far-right after Bannon and Gorka have enough (INAUDIBLE), but it's really very troubling when the president of the United States is politically trying to appeal these types of people.

BERMAN: Richard, stand by, because I'm here with Bakari and Alice, here Bakari Sellers and Alice Stewart right now, just handed to know. Alice, you have something to follow up on -- on the process that was followed here, our Sara Murray reported just moments ago, that this was not the norm -- the traditional process where it goes through the Justice Department. Sara reports, that the Justice Department wasn't involved here.

STEWART: Right. And the interesting thing with her making that statement, went back and took a look at the briefing yesterday. Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked about this. Did the president seek a recommendation from the pardon attorney or the deputy attorney general or did he seek an FBI background check with regard to making this happen. And she said from what she understands are going through standard, normal thorough procedure with issuing a pardon. Clearly it doesn't appear that was the case. And it simply appears this was something the president has always planned to do. Never questioned that this was an intent of him of what he wanted to do. He doesn't see that Sheriff Arpaio did anything wrong. Didn't see that he broke the law. He sees this as executing his job as sheriff of Maricopa County and this was inevitable that this was going to happen.

BERMAN: Bakari?

SELLERS: One of the things that I also want to point out and I think it's good for the viewers and everyone else to understand what we're talking about when we mention the fact that he went around the process and Richard Painter pointed it out extremely well that, you know, this was very political in nature. [21:00:01] Barack Obama during his pardon process had what the White House affectionately called a double blind process. With the president didn't want to know who was applying for a pardon, he didn't want to have anything to do within while it was at Department of Justice.