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Texas Braces for Catastrophic Floods from Hurricane Harvey; Interview with Brock Long; John Kelly to Execute Detailed Plan to Control Info to Trump; Aired 7-7:30a ET

Aired August 25, 2017 - 07:00   ET



ALISYN CAMEROTA, CNN ANCHOR: So let's get to our breaking news.

Hurricane Harvey is intensifying rapidly as it bears down on the Texas coast. This is a monster storm and it is expected to strengthen to a category three hurricane before making landfall tonight. More than 17 million people are under hurricane and tropical storm warnings at this hour.

GREGORY: And the biggest concern for this storm, catastrophic flooding. We can't say it enough this morning. Harvey is expected to stall over Texas for days and dump two to three feet of rain. Major flooding concerns here. Tens of thousands of people who are in low lying areas are being ordered to leave their homes.

President Trump is now facing the first natural disaster of his presidency.

Let's begin our coverage with CNN's Nick Valencia live in Corpus Christi, Texas. He has the latest on what's happening there.

NICK VALENCIA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, David. We are on the bank of the bay front here in the city of Corpus Christi. And this already is a bad sign for residents that have not evacuated there. That water is already spilling over the bank. That is certainly not a normal sign.

It is eerily quiet here in Corpus Christi. Yes, it is the early morning hours, but a lot of it has to do with the city basically being shut down. It was just a little while ago, if you want to walk with me here, I'll show you these empty streets.

It was just a little while ago I spoke to Lieutenant Henry Supulveda here with the Corpus Christi Police Department. He says they've implemented an all-hazards plan, meaning officers starting at 6:00 a.m. here local will be all hands on deck in 12-hour shifts.

I mentioned those evacuations. Voluntary evacuations were already ordered by the city mayor yesterday, many residents, because they have experience in these types of storms, got out well before that. There's been a lot of lines at the grocery store. I spoke to one local resident who said he waited in line about an hour yesterday at 6:00 in the morning. Basic services have been depleted and city officials are warning local residents who decided not to evacuate that they could be without those basic services and food for four or five days -- Alisyn.

CAMEROTA: OK. Nick, thanks so much for the reporting. We'll check back with you.

The outer bands of Hurricane Harvey are beginning to pummel Texas. As you can see from the radar, this storm's biggest threat is extreme flooding. And that will affect cities like Houston, Austin and San Antonio.

CNN's Polo Sandoval is live in San Antonio. That city is already under a local disaster declaration.

What are you seeing at this hour, Polo?

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Alisyn, many of the evacuees from some of those coastal communities including Corpus Christi, they are headed here to San Antonio, who once they arrive in some of these inland cities, the threat is far from over. As you mentioned, catastrophic flooding is the main concern in cities like Austin, Houston, here in San Antonio as well.

Just think about it. This storm is predicted to just wander around the Lone Star State, particularly there along the coastal communities and cities like San Antonio which will mean some of the torrential and some serious flooding which is why many people including here in San Antonio will not be going to school, will not be going to work today in order to prepare.

In the meantime, though, what we are seeing here, David, is that calm before the storm. Officials are recommending that everybody use today what is the last of the favorable conditions to prepare before the weather conditions take a turn -- David.

GREGORY: And Polo, I think that's one of the big questions, which is how in this calm before the storm, whether people are thinking of this as a big rain events that they can kind of ride out as opposed to a major flooding event where there'd be a cutoff point where they can get out safely.

SANDOVAL: Right. And that's why officials have been doing this for about 24 to 48 hours now, recommending to people in those coastal communities simply head to higher ground because as we -- as we heard from our colleague, Nick Valencia, a few moments ago many of those essential services to those coastal communities will be cut off once the eye of the storm begins to really hone in on the coastal communities.

So as we begin to see more evacuations on the coastline, expect more of the shelters in some of these inland cities to continue to get full.

CAMEROTA: OK. So, Polo, San Antonio -- I mean, it could -- you know, look, it's very hard to know before it hits how catastrophic something will be. And we try not to, you know, heighten anybody's fears. We've seen that before. Some people have hurricane fatigue, where they don't take it seriously, they don't believe that it's going to be as bad as meteorologists predict. What's your sense of how people are feeling there?

SANDOVAL: At this point, Alisyn -- it's a great question. At this point, Alisyn, people are going about their lives. Yes, people are preparing, though. They are stocking up because they're preparing -- they simply don't want to be out in the rain. That's expected to begin later this afternoon into tonight. So, yes, people are taking the warnings seriously, but they are also being very cautious about over preparing. Really the main focus is more on those the coastal communities, but, you know, having grown up in Texas, I can tell you that many of these low lying areas flood very quickly, particularly in and around central and south Texas.

Part of what makes it so beautiful are some of those rolling hills that also is what contribute to that flooding threat as well. So that is why people in some of those communities are being advised to simply keep a close eye on Hurricane Harvey which is on the horizon.

CAMEROTA: Got it. OK, Polo, thank you very much. We'll check back with you.

[07:05:03] GREGORY: Obviously monitoring the White House as well. President Trump has not said anything or tweeted anything this morning about the storm. He did talk to the governors of those affected or in the storm's path last night. Federal responsibilities and role here very important.

We want to go now to Michael Brennan, he is the chief hurricane specialist at the National Hurricane Center, to get the latest on the track of the storm.

Michael, it's good to have you. What are you seeing at this point?

MICHAEL BRENNAN, CHIEF HURRICANE SPECIALIST, NATIONAL HURRICANE CENTER: Well, right now we're seeing that Harvey is continuing to strengthen. We've had some reports from the Hurricane Hunter aircraft in there that have found that the maximum winds have increased up to 110 miles per hour.

Central pressure has continued to fall. You can see the eye here very clearly on the radar from Brownsville, Texas. Right now Harvey is about 145 miles southeast of Corpus Christi moving off to the northwest at about 10. So we're expecting the storm to approach the coast within that hurricane warning area that extends from Port Mansfield up to Sergeant, Texas. And that's going to occur late tonight and into early tomorrow morning.

So conditions are going to begin to deteriorate along the coast within the warning area. Already starting to see rain bands affecting the coast. And we're going to see these tropical storm force winds begin to arrive later this morning and early this afternoon.

CAMEROTA: Yes. Michael, what worries you the most about Harvey? BRENNAN: There are three things that worry me. They're all very

important life-threatening hazards at this time. We have the hurricane-force winds, potentially major hurricane-force winds. We are forecasting Harvey to strengthen. And those winds are going to be in the core as it makes landfall within the hurricane warning area. As we go into -- excuse me. As we go into tonight and early tomorrow morning.

The second concern is the storm surge. We have a storm surge warning in effect for much of the Texas coastline. And within this area, essentially from south of Corpus Christi to just west of the Houston area, we can see storm surge inundation values of six to 12 feet above ground level. So six feet tall is as tall as I am. We're talking double that height. So life-threatening storm surge inundation that's going to occur near and to the right of where the center of Harvey crosses the coast.

So that's a hazard that folks are going to want to pay attention to any evacuation orders they've been given. And then finally, very heavy rainfall. Harvey is going to essentially stall out along the Texas coast for the next five days. And we could see exception rainfall totals of 15 to 25 inches, isolated amounts as high as 35 inches. It's going to cause life-threatening rainfall flooding that's going to extend into the middle parts of next week for southern and eastern Texas and extending into eastern Louisiana.

GREGORY: All right. Michael Brennan from the Hurricane Center, thank you very much. We'll be checking back with you as we check the progress of the storm all morning long.

CAMEROTA: OK. So Hurricane Harvey will be President Trump's first test in handling a natural disaster. President Trump called the governors of Texas and Louisiana last night to offer the support of the federal government.

So joining us now is FEMA director Brock Long.

Mr. Long, thank you so much for taking time out of this very busy morning to share with us what the federal response is going to be with this. What concerns you most at this hour?

BROCK LONG, FEMA ADMINISTRATOR: Good morning. First of all, I would like to set expectations. Texas is about to have a very significant disaster. What concerns me the most right now is whether or not people have heeded the warning that local county judges have put forward. If they have not, their window to evacuate is rapidly coming to a close.

Specifically I'm very worried about the storm surge, coastal flood inundation aspect. Storm surge has the forgiving hazard. It has the highest potential to kill the most amount of people and cause the most of damage. On top of that, as this system moves in probably the next five days, we're looking at a very significant inland flood event over many counties, which is going to be a sizable event.

CAMEROTA: Can the federal government issue a mandatory evacuation, or is that just local level?

LONG: No. In Texas -- each state is different. But in Texas local county officials are responsible for issuing evacuations. I do not have the authority to issue any evacuations whatsoever.

CAMEROTA: OK. You have a lot of experience in this. You were the head of Alabama's Emergency Management Agency. So what is it about Harvey that is causing you such grave read concerns?

LONG: This is the first -- the storm is getting stronger, the pressure is dropping, all indications from the hurricane center are that this is going to be the first major hurricane that the nation has dealt with since 2005. Right now we are -- FEMA is already in the state of Texas. We have pre-positioned incident management teams, lifesaving, life sustaining commodities. We have search and rescue teams in the state and we are ready to go to support our state partners.

CAMEROTA: What can the president do to help today?

LONG: Well, today I think that we're going to be looking at the potential request for presidential disaster declarations coming up from Governor Abbott. And as soon as those come up, we're able to -- the president has the ability, has the authority to sign off on those to mobilize our support to those states -- to the state governments.

CAMEROTA: We've not seen a tweet yet from President Trump about this yet this morning.

[07:10:04] Do you think it would help for the president to make a statement and tweet out his concerns and yours about this?

LONG: I think the president is allowing me to do my job. And we've been in constant contact with the White House. And the bottom line is that we are really focused right now on the life safety message that we're putting forward and the president is fully engaged and will be so throughout this event.

CAMEROTA: As you have now tried to telegraph to all of us, the flooding there is expected to be life-threatening. So what proactively are you asking our listeners to do?

LONG: Well, there's two different aspects to the flooding. The first is the coastal flood inundation which refer to as storm surge. This is wind-driven water that's going to encroach on the coastal barrier islands and go up the back bay inland areas, which is the most dangerous, very quick aspect of the flooding and what is the primary driver of the evacuation calls that local county judges make.

Over the next five days, we're going to see copious amounts of rainfall, up to 25 inches possibly in some areas with isolated higher amounts. This is going to be a slow developing major disaster event for the state of Texas.

CAMEROTA: You know, we've all seen the videos time and again of people trapped in their cars. They waited too long. You know, they were trying to get out and then they got in their cars at the 11th hour and started trying to make their way out. And then we see all sort of, you know, emergency responders having to rescue them. And already you can see, you know, traffic lining up. I mean, what's the plan? Texas is so huge.

LONG: Yes. So the bottom line message is right now, if people have not heeded the warning, again, their window to do so is closing. And if they refuse to heed the warning, that's on them. And the bottom line is that they need to elevate and get within -- you know, get into a structure that can withstand potentially category 3 winds from a hurricane because this storm is strengthening right now.

CAMEROTA: All right. We appreciate the warnings from you, Brock Long, FEMA director. Thank you very much for joining us on NEW DAY.

LONG: Thank you.


GREGORY: All right. When we come back, we're going to switch gears and talk about another big story which is the efforts to tame the wild West Wing. John Kelly, new chief of staff, trying to impose some order. New reporting this morning, and new comments by members of the president's inner circle. Maggie Haberman of "The New York Times" is going to join us to tell us more.


[07:16:28] CAMEROTA: President Trump apparently responding to "The New York Times" report this morning about his Chief of Staff General John Kelly vetting the information that gets passed to the president's desk in the Oval Office.

The president moments ago tweeting, "General Kelly is doing a fantastic job as chief of staff. There is tremendous spirit and talent in the White House. Don't believe the fake news."

Let's bring in CNN political analyst, Maggie Haberman. Maggie is the White House correspondent for "The New York Times," she has extensive reporting on how General Kelly is changing the way the West Wing is run.

Maggie, great to see you.


CAMEROTA: So what is the feeling inside about how effective John Kelly has been as chief of staff thus far?

HABERMAN: Look, Kelly made pretty clear when he took this job that he was not attempting to rein in Donald Trump and witness why in terms of these tweets. But he is attempting to deal with the staff. So he is managing down, not up. And he put out two memos on Monday that had been pretty anticipated. They were follow-ups on themes that he had talked about in a conference call with staff a week earlier. But it was really about getting control of the West Wing. These are

similar in themes to memos that Reince Priebus, his predecessor, had put out. But frankly people didn't take Priebus pretty seriously, and they didn't really adhere to these including people like Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump who had run their own parallel line to the president. They are said to be embracing this new process and going along with it.

CAMEROTA: You don't have just instant open door access to the Oval Office anymore supposedly.

HABERMAN: Correct. Not only is it not just open door access. It used to be that basically people would wander by, you know, that outer ante room outside of the Oval Office, and he would have the door open and he would catch people's eyes and it's like come on in. That door is closed and almost every other door is now closed. So there just isn't this kind of free flow that you saw before.

But what's really also important is this is about paper flow to and from the president. This is about news articles he gets, this is about memos about policy, this is about making sure that stakeholders on various sides have been heard and that it's codified in a certain way and gets to the president. The same is true particularly for legally implicated paper coming out like executive orders.

GREGORY: Right. But how -- I just wonder, what's striking to me about this is the president both listens and doesn't listen in the course of one conversation. Right? So Kelly can have influence over him and say, look, you need to issue a different kind of statement in response to Charlottesville. He does it. And then the next day he goes off half cocked at a press conference and then he does that rally in Phoenix.

So how does that get evaluated? I mean, if you make a decision to say let's control information flow but I have no control over a president who will take to social media in ways we have not seen before?

HABERMAN: I think that he is not attempting control over the president. I think he -- what he is attempting is not to telegraph exactly what he's doing in terms of the president. I think there's all sorts of relationship messaging that we're not necessarily seeing to your point. This president has a long history when somebody reports, they're trying to rein him in, of showing just exactly how not reigned in he is. And we've gotten to see that on Twitter and certainly with Charlottesville.

GREGORY: Right. But part of him does want to be reined in. I mean, he gets rid of Bannon under pressure. He does react under pressure to conform until he doesn't. That's the part of Trump's mind as president. I still don't have my head --

HABERMAN: I don't totally agree with why it is that he gets rid of people in those respects. Usually it's pressure because certain situations have become untenable or because staff is upset or because just he himself is obsessing about something. The Bannon situation was complicated. You know, to say he was fired

is not really accurate. It was a very strange evolution. It went over a period of time. But he gets in these situations where he will eventually solve something, but it's only once the situation has reached something of a crisis point --

GREGORY: Right. And today it's not about whether he was fired, it's just the idea that he gets pushed out --

[07:20:07] HABERMAN: Right. But it isn't -- I guess what I'm saying is that it's not that he's saying, ugh, yes, I just want to be done with this.


HABERMAN: He doesn't like confrontation at all. And we know this from many, many, many instances.

CAMEROTA: Maggie, I'm very interested in your reporting about the information, the articles, the news articles that will now be placed on the president's desk. The president as we know historically peddles bogus news stories. He -- they're not news stories, they are truly fake news.

HABERMAN: Or they're conspiracy theories. Right.

CAMEROTA: They're conspiracy theories and they are truly the definition of fake news. Fiction, made-up. And he has put them out and peddled those. How is John Kelly controlling that?

HABERMAN: Look, anything that's an actual news story that he is looking at is going to go through a process where it goes to the staff secretary, a man named Rob Porter, for review, vetting, then it goes to Kelly for approval then it gets to the president's desk.

What John Kelly obviously cannot control is the president's remote control and he cannot control his personal cell phone. And he can get on that cell phone at any time of the night, you know, when he goes up to the residence and call whomever and have something read to him. And he has a way, as we know -- I mean, you know, there have been jokes made about how it's served like watching somebody, you know, doing an e-mail forward. Right?

I mean, he will pick up, you know, filaments of information and he'll just put them back out and they're not always entirely clear. So look, this is not going to be a completely perfect system, but it is going to be, I think, as good a system as one can get.

You have to -- if you were John Kelly and frankly if you were Reince Priebus or any of these people, you have to -- you have to accept who you're dealing with. And you're not going to -- you are not going to change him. So all you can do is to control things the best you can to the greatest extent possible.

GREGORY: So family access to the president is a big deal, but so is -- additional comments that come out like this morning in the "Financial Times." His top economic adviser Gary Cohn who has had a lot of things to say to people about how unhappy he has been in the Trump White House, talked about the pressure as a Jew that he has felt to resign after Charlottesville and the president's equivocations.

Let's put up a full screen of part of what he said. "I have come under enormous pressure both to resign and to remain in my current position as a patriotic man. I am reluctant to leave my post because I feel a duty to fulfill my commitment to work on behalf of the American people. But I also feel compelled to voice my distress over the events of the last two weeks. As a Jewish American, I will not allow neo-Nazi ranting, "Jews will not replace us," to cause this Jew to leave his job. I feel deep empathy for all who have been targeted by these hate groups. We must all unite together against him."

He makes a strong point, but of course what he also alludes to in the piece is that he is upset with his boss, for the fact that he didn't speak out against those Jew-hating, racist neo-Nazis.

HABERMAN: Emphasis on allude. I mean essentially what he's saying is yes, there's chants of, you know, Jews will not replace us. And I'm not going to let that get me. That is really not why people were pressuring Gary Cohn to leave the White House. And by people we're talking about his family and a lot of his friends in the business community.

He was under enormous pressure. Gary Cohn is, you know, a career businessman, he has said to be interested in the Fed chair job as we all know. You know, there have been some suggestions to me that that is really what he is waiting for. And it is -- there are understandable reasons why people are remaining. I think it is difficult I think for people from the outside who are not in the White House to see, A, what exactly is going on and, B, and what -- you know, what we don't know

And B, I think people's reasons for staying are complicated. And I think that's very -- that's very fair, but I do think that that statement was a bit of redirect or misdirection. He said we can do more to call this out. There appears not to have been much follow-up based to that at least based on the transcript. I'm not exactly who he's blaming since he says the administration.


HABERMAN: And really the focus has been on one person.

CAMEROTA: In terms of who now has access to the president, it's fascinating the reporting about how his family even has to go through John Kelly or through different channels because --

HABERMAN: His family can --


CAMEROTA: I mean, sorry. His son, Barron, and his wife, open door access obviously.


COSTELLO: But Ivanka and Jared, there is a new protocol for, yes?

HABERMAN: They can go speak to him the way it was in the meeting on the very day that John Kelly was there was you can go in if you are, you know, a wife and 11-year-old son. I think Ivanka was sitting near here in a meeting and he said, you know, or Ivanka, if she's going in, you know, as a daughter.

And I don't really know how you take off your, you know, staff members, assistant to the president cap and then sort of talk just as a family member. But by all accounts so far that is what is happening.

Look, we are really newly into this. They just all got back to the White House. This is the first week that they're all there together in full. So we'll have to see how this plays out.

GREGORY: Here is my big question, trying to understand President Trump and his thinking is what he considers success.

[07:25:05] Because I take his attacks on Republicans, the insistence on building the wall as fundamental to how he campaigned. Whether that was cynical, whether it was principled, whatever it was, the point is that he had a theory which is that he is outside of the political system, that Republicans and Democrats have let people down, and that he's achieved a measure of success by continuing to fight.

But until and unless he achieves some of these things, he's going to have very little to take back to voters starting as the head of the Republican Party in the midterms.

HABERMAN: Look. I mean, that's why you're seeing a lot of questions right now about whether he is going to in essence splinter off and have some form of, you know, the Trump party, for lack of a better way of putting it. It is going to be very hard I think when you are president to keep explaining why it is everybody else who has denied you success, especially because he tends to be so all over the place.

And that -- look, that worked for him in the campaign. He threw so many different things out on a given day that almost nothing really stuck. People are going to vote based on what their lives are like and what they're seeing in their lives. You know, tax reform, if it gets done, there are rewards and risks. If it does not get done, there are rewards and risks. But I do think that September is shaping up to be a pretty crucial month in terms of looking for a benchmark.

GREGORY: I think it's possible that he also gets a lot of credit for trying among those who support him. The big question will be where Republicans are. That support has not fallen out. It has not cratered.

HABERMAN: No. Not at all. And I don't know that it ever will.

GREGORY: Yes. HABERMAN: I mean, in this partisan environment. What has fallen out

is his support among independents. And it's really hard, A, to win a national election without independents. And number two, the environment of the midterms is pretty toxic right now for Republicans, which every Republican strategist will tell you it doesn't mean that they will lose the House. I really don't see them losing the Senate, but it does mean that this is an atmosphere that they can't quite believe they're in.


CAMEROTA: Let's talk about the breaking news this morning, and that is Hurricane Harvey. So this will be the first test in terms of a natural disaster for the president. We just heard from his FEMA director.


CAMEROTA: What do we expect from President Trump?

HABERMAN: I think it remains to be seen. This is his first domestic crisis test that is not, you know, an external event since Charlottesville, but this is his first natural crisis test. They have handled things in ways that have really surprised me in this last week. I mean, for instance, we have not seen them really discussed in any major way -- the president in his rally didn't even mention it -- the tragedy involving the USS McCain. I think this becomes --

CAMEROTA: He hasn't tweeted about this yet --

HABERMAN: I think he tweeted -- no, I mean, he tweeted about the USS -- the storm?

CAMEROTA: Yes, about the storm.

HABERMAN: He tweeted about the storm last night. But he tweeted a very, very formal, you know, sort of, you know, we're on this message that looked like you can usually tell for some of these messages when staff is writing it, when he's writing it. But no, he -- look, he I assume will be watching television and he will be, you know, getting updates from various members of the administration.

But, A, we don't know what the storm will actually look like. B, I mean, the big test is going to be if there is serious devastation, does the president visit the area? We did not see him visit Charlottesville. I don't think the White House even sent anybody to the service for Heather Heyer who was murdered.

How he handles this is going to be crucial. I'm reluctant to predict because it has been so hard to say what he will actually do. But he has tended to do on these things so far. Anything outside this White House's control, a lot less.

CAMEROTA: Unpredictable is certainly the way to describe it.

HABERMAN: Probably better to just hold your tongue and see what happens.

CAMEROTA: Right. Let's do that. Maggie, thank you very much for sharing all of your reporting with us.

So Hurricane Harvey barreling towards the Texas coast. Are residents now heeding these warnings to evacuate? We have a live report from Texas next.