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Hurricane Harvey Downgraded to Tropic Storm; Flood Warnings in Effect in Parts of Texas; Texas Governor Greg Abbott Holds Press Conference on Hurricane Recovery Efforts; President Trump Pardons Former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio; Sebastian Gorka Departs White House. Aired 2-3p ET

Aired August 26, 2017 - 14:00   ET


[14:00:00] FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: -- Sandoval is live there. Polo, you're still experiencing all the elements there. Tell us what's happening.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes. Yes, it's amazing, Fred. Almost on cue it's seems somebody was listening, right, when you mentioned that tropical storm, the 70-mile-an-hour winds, they certainly did kick up. But just like that they stop. It really is incredible. I've covered many hurricanes and always surprised by just how fast these things can change because these cyclones have the bands that are sweeping across the region. And that's something we continue to see here in Victoria.

Yes, it's been downgraded now to tropical storm category or status, but yet we continue to see those howling winds that are keeping many people still indoors. Authorities, however, have been able to get on the road, begin damage assessment. We've driven around a little bit and have seen some damage, however much of what we've seen so far has been really superficial structural damage. Let's say a couple of tiles or siding that's been ripped off buildings, maybe some windows that have been broken, but nothing compared to what perhaps some of our friends south of here have seen.

And of course plenty of debris. There's plenty of branches, plenty of tree limbs and street signs all over the place because earlier today if it was not grounded or it was not bolted to the ground like this garbage can, it certainly was swept away.

As for other neighboring cities I could tell you that we have seen very similar damage there. We've seen some flooding on the side of the roads in getting here when we left San Antonio earlier this morning. And that's been somewhat of a concern for authorities. We've heard officials call it devastating flooding. There's the wind. And we did see some of that on the roads, the water level slowly rising the closer we got to the coast. And that is a concern that perhaps some of these roads could be impassable later on. But at this point we did not have any problem getting in. Authorities still recommending, though, Fred, people shelter in place if you're finding yourself in these kinds of weather conditions.

WHITFIELD: All right, Polo Sandoval, thanks so much for that perspective from Victoria, Texas. Let's move onto Houston, Texas, now, north of there, and Rosa Flores

is live for us there. So Rosa, we had rising bayou waters. What are the conditions now?

ROSA FLORES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: You know, we're getting a little break from the rain, Fred, right now. Every now and then we are getting some gusts of wind. You can see that this bayou still very swollen. It's still gushing out towards the Gulf of Mexico. But weather and flooding is bizarre. And I want to show you exactly what I'm talking about. Last hour this step was under water. You can see some of the debris here. Now in an hour or so it went down about 17 or 18 inches, that quickly. It's bizarre. It's bizarre.

Again, we're still bracing for hurricane Harvey here. And the ebbs and flows of this water, I mean, it's just moving. It's been moving a lot. And you can see to my right here on that grassy knoll where those ducks are, you can see the line of debris, where it was probably about an hour ago and where it is now.

Now, we're not saying that by any means that this is good news or bad news. We're just kind of showing you the ebbs and flows of this water. And as it's gushing because, again, one of the most dangerous things about water like this is it's very unpredictable. You never know what's going to happen. That's why city leaders here and first responders are prepared with resources all over the city because even though they do know historically that some areas do flood and some areas are more prone to flooding than others, they're prepared for everything because you just don't know what this water's going to do.

So as you can see, where these two bayous converge it's turned into a gushing river. And Houston expecting between 15 to 25 inches. And in some isolated areas they're expecting up to 35 inches of rain, Fred. So, again, city leaders asking people to shelter in place, to be patient, to be vigilant, to stay in their homes as they brace for hurricane Harvey.

WHITFIELD: And are you getting a sense -- oh, OK, well, Rosa Flores, thank you so much. We're going to go to Austin, Texas, now because Governor Greg Abbott is about to hold this press conference we've been awaiting. Here we go.

GOV. GREG ABBOTT, (R) TEXAS: Well, thank you all for being with us here today. A lot has happened in the past 24 hours since the last briefing. I'd like to bring you up to speed on what I know and then take a few questions.

Let me first start with some generalities and then get down to some more granular details. First, now that the hurricane has come onshore, our primary concern remains dramatic flooding. According to information that I was provided, there's been about 20 inches of rain in the Corpus Christi area, about 16 inches of rain in the Houston area, and our biggest concern is the possibility of between 20 and 30 more inches of rain in areas ranging from Corpus Christi over to Houston.

[14:05:20] Because of the flooding, one of the top focal points that we are concerned about is ongoing rescue and recovery. We want to do everything we possibly can to keep people out of rising water. Part of that is by constant warnings to the public about being vigilant, about observing rising water around you. As you're traveling, if you are traveling out on the road, always watch for water on the road, remembering that when you come across water it could be far deeper than what your eye observes or the swiftness of the current can be far stronger than what you perceive.

You all know the well-known phrase, and that is turn around, don't drown. Don't risk your life. Still the most important thing that all Texans can do who are affected by this storm is to put your life and the protection of your life first and foremost.

In addition to that, the state and various agencies remain very active in the search and rescue process, and that will be one of the foremost tasks that we undertake in the coming days. We have focused on working with and supporting evacuees, especially from around the Corpus Christi area, now expanding to some larger areas. I had the opportunity yesterday afternoon to go to San Antonio to visit with evacuees as they were getting off of buses that had come in from the Corpus Christi area. You could sense a sense of relief on their part that they were out of the way of what was an increasingly threatening storm. They were happy to be alive, and they were at peace in that regard, but obviously also concerned about what they had left behind, about the possibility that they had lost or would be losing the place they lived as well as some of their property. But most importantly they were just happy to be alive.

I have issued a disaster declaration that originally included 30 counties. And this is a state disaster declaration. And we have now added 20 more counties for a total of six counties. As you probably know, I requested a federal disaster declaration that the president granted last night. This is incredibly important and extremely fast. What the presidential proclamation about our disaster declaration does is it immediately triggers the implementation of FEMA and FEMA's assistance for individuals as well as cities and counties for all of us to begin the rebuilding process as quickly as possible.

Something else that I did yesterday is I issued a proclamation waiving hotel occupancy taxes for all evacuees and first responders. So any place in the state of Texas where there's an evacuee or first responder who is affected by this storm, they will be able to have the hotel taxes waived.

I just got word from the Fort Bend County judge who has issued a voluntary evacuation for the Brazos River area in Fort Bend County and a mandatory evacuation along the San Bernard. This is one of the foremost regions in the state of Texas that already has flooding and we anticipate the flooding to grow worse in that area.

This morning I had the opportunity to make phone calls to several of the mayors who were affected by the hurricane last night. I spoke with the mayor of Victoria and spoke with the mayor of Port Lavaca. I made phone calls to the mayors of Corpus Christi as well as Rockport, and with the latter two I did not have the ability to connect with them but left messages for them. For the mayors of Victoria and Port Lavaca, they seem to be in strong spirits.

[14:10:02] They obviously preside over cities that have suffered some very meaningful damage, but they are working very aggressively to try to help their citizens respond to their challenges, and I offer them as well as the mayors of Corpus Christi and Rockport any and all help that the state of Texas can provide.

Now, for some more granular detail as a result of the briefing that I just had, looking at the Texas military division, there are more than 1,300 service members who are currently activated. And we anticipate increasing that amount by 500 more, giving up above 1,800 service members who will be activated to assist in responding to the hurricane and its aftermath.

As far as the Texas Department of Transportation, they are already undertaking cleanup operations around the Corpus Christi and Yoakum areas, working to clear pathways along roadways there, which is impressive that they were able to get in that quickly and begin that process. With the PUC, they say that there are more than 338,000 outages. And it will still be several days perhaps before those outages will be able to be addressed. The reason for that is because the wind speed in the area of where they're going to be able to take care of those outages has to decrease below a certain level before they are able to respond.

As far as emergency services are concerned, which includes the Texas military, includes Texas parks and wildlife, it includes Texas task force one and Texas task force two, one of their primary focal points is search and rescue. They've already made several search and rescue operations, primarily hoisting through the helicopter process. And we have about 1,000 personnel in the state of Texas who were assigned to search and rescue.

The Texas parks and wildlife has about 1,500 evacuees at state parks. And, again, any cost that would normally be incurred at a state park has been waived for evacuee. For the Texas department of public safety, they have assigned about 80 troopers to the Corpus Christi area to assist in law enforcement needs in that region. For the Red Cross, they have 21 shelters open already with the population of about 1,450, and they have 42 more shelters on standby to be ready.

Importantly, those are Red Cross shelters. There are so many other shelters across the state of Texas, whether they be local churches or other local facilities. And we are very, very appreciative of everyone in the state of Texas who is providing shelter, food, and other supplies.

Along those lines I do want to express my gratitude at the shelter I was at yesterday. There was a need for towels and for blanketing and bedding for the people who were there. We made a public plea and that plea was answered very swiftly. So thank you to the people of San Antonio for responding to the needs of the people from Corpus Christi who have shelter in San Antonio.

On transportation, we have 228 buses that are available to continue to move evacuees and more than 100 bus trips for evacuees have already been undertaken. We have across multiple agencies we are in the process of getting water, ice, food and supplies to need areas. We're in the process of working to set up staging areas where those supplies will soon be able to be delivered to those who need them.

With that, why don't I take a few questions? Yes?

QUESTION: Governor, what guidance have you been given about how bad the flooding and flash flooding can be? Are we expecting homes to be swept away off river banks like we saw in years previous flooding events? And as that pertains to your search and rescue crews ready to mobilize, what would you say to those people who are in their homes being advised to evacuate?

[14:15:00] ABBOTT: Sure. The best information we have are predictions about the rainfall that will come on top of the rainfall that's already occurred. And that is that in various key regions ranging from Corpus Christi to the Houston area perhaps as much as between 20 and 30 more inches of rain could be coming down. That is coming down on already saturated ground and already filled up waterways, whether they be creeks, bayous or rivers. And so there is the potential of very dramatic flooding.

It's essential for people near those flood zones to do several things. One is to obviously be aware of your surroundings. Two is to listen to warnings given out by local officials and heed those warnings. And three, whenever you do venture out by car or any other way, be very cautious, knowing that not only is it rising water, but oftentimes it will be swift moving water that can carry you away. For everybody in the state of Texas your top responsibility is to protect your life. So whenever you're near water, be sure you're doing everything to stay safe.

QUESTION: Sir, any confirmed fatalities from the storm?

ABBOTT: We don't have any information right now that we can confirm any fatalities. That's information that we will be working with local officials seeking confirmation that we can report later.

QUESTION: Do you expect to report --

ABBOTT: Well, whenever we receive confirmation of fatalities and confirmation that it was a result of the storm as opposed to some other cause, we will confirm it. But we cannot confirm it at this time.

QUESTION: Have you received any unconfirmed reports that you're looking into?


QUESTION: Do you know about how many rescues have been performed?

ABBOTT: So what's happening right now is our first responders are absolutely putting their lives on the line to get out there and do search and rescue for any of those that are still in need. And I think what you're going to see over these next few hours and probably into days is that is the wind conditions and the weather conditions allow they are going to get out there and do as many rescues as they possibly can.

The message to those that may need help or rescue, make sure you put that signal out there that you are still there and you still need help. If you still have electricity or phone service at all and battery, send those messages out, make sure we can see them. But I need you to keep our first responders in your thoughts and prayers because they are absolutely risking their lives to get out there in these dangerous conditions to look for those that are in need.

QUESTION: Can you share with us some of the human contact you've had talking with the evacuees?

ABBOTT: Right. It was so heartening to shake the hands of these evacuees as they got off of these buses. And I walked around the school that they were being housed in and got to visit with them. And they are what I call typical Texans. They were resilient. They were strong. They were strong spirited. They were happy. They were just happy to be there and be alive. But obviously they were in need. There was a part of them that were facing a sense of the --

WHITFIELD: We just lost the signal from Texas Governor Greg Abbott. But you get the gist of it. He says, you know, while hurricane Harvey has been downgraded to a tropical storm, there are conditions they do expect to worsen. Let's continue to listen in on the Texas governor.

ABBOTT: I'll take two more.


ABBOTT: It's way too early to make any estimates about that. What I can say is we are so pleased that the federal government and the White House have stepped up in the strong way they have by granting our disaster declaration that will enable Texas and Texans to be able to better deal with the financial consequences of the storm.

QUESTION: We heard in the field of undocumented immigrants being turned away at shelters. Can you speak to that?

ABBOTT: I have no information about that.

QUESTION: Sir, you suggested earlier in the week that there were people not heeding the evacuation calls, maybe more than expected. Is that still the case?

ABBOTT: Well, I'll correct that. I didn't suggest that they were not heeding it. What I was suggesting is that if a local official has warned people to evacuate, it is very important that citizens heed those warnings by their local officials. Great. Thank you.

[14:20:13] WHITFIELD: All right, you've been listening to Texas governor Greg Abbott there. And he says there are conditions during, in parts of the state that are expected to worsen because still upwards of 20 inches of rain is expected. There are ongoing rescue and recovery efforts underway, including helicopters and the use of some 1,800 military service personnel. They are indeed focusing on evacuees right now.

The city of Galveston is also an area that's expected to experience two to four foot storm surges. Our Ed Lavandera is there. And so Ed, any indications as to whether any rescue or recovery efforts that the governor spoke about are underway there in Galveston?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Not on Galveston Island, but some of the areas they were talking about is just a little bit further north from where we are. You've got to cross the bridge, get back onto the mainland to get into those areas we're talking about. We've been checking in with authorities here on Galveston Island throughout the morning. And we have had several hours of a really strong heavy rain band that had been moving through here. And it is finally died off.

And you can see here just how much the storm -- we're here standing on the edge of the seawall, and the storm surge was getting there just to the banks of it throughout most of probably the last 15 hours or so. And you can see how much all of that has receded back into the Gulf of Mexico. So that's kind of a good sign.

And since that has happened you actually start seeing people coming out here rushing out to walk along the beach and see what's been left behind. Traffic and power pretty well intact here on the island, but this is one of the areas that, you know, just because this particular band is over, that precaution and that anticipation that more rain could come at any moment or might start moving this way, you don't want to give people a false sense of security through all of this, especially since the tropical storm is still hovering over the area. Some of the computer models as we watch forecasters talk about had even talked about at some point this storm making its way west, perhaps even going back out into the gulf, re-strengthening and then coming back toward this way. So there's always that concern. That is in the back of the mind of a lot of the emergency management officials here in this part of southeast Texas.

But for the most part, Fredricka, everything holding up rather well. Now that the rain has stopped, there had been some minor flooding in various streets that we came across this morning, but the kind of flooding would recede rather quickly. So for the most part every indication here on Galveston Island is that everything is working smoothly and we'll continue to monitor that as well. That can change at any time.

WHITFIELD: All right, Ed Lavandera in Galveston, Texas, thank you so much. So as this storm kind of continues to move toward the inland portions of Texas, they're not out of the woods yet. Meteorologist Chad Myers is here. You heard the governor particularly very concerned about floods, standing water. He was reminding people, you know, turn around, don't drown. What could the rest of Texas be bracing for?

CHAD MYERS, AMS METEOROLOGIST: Well, I think the models said it best even a couple days ago, Fredricka, when they said 30 to 40 inches in any one spot is not out of the question. And a widespread, a swath of 20-inch rainfalls everywhere, almost the size of the state of South Carolina right there over parts of Texas. Think about that. Think of 20 inches of rain on any state or for that matter any country, you're going to get flooding because it can't all get off at one time.

Here's Houston proper. Talking about three to four inches around Houston so far. But just west of there, especially here the Brazos River you've already got some spots between 12 and 14. That water's going to get into the river and head down towards Sugarland and the lake. All the way down to Corpus Christi, he talked about that, somewhere between 10 and 12 inches already on the ground, already has fallen. And guess what, this thing only made landfall 14 or 16 hours ago. So we have a long way to go. And we've had this much rain already as the storm came onshore in the overnight hours making all that wind damage.

And then now I think the real threat has changed from a wind damage maker to a flood maker where there's the latest number 14 inches of rainfall in one city. Not every city. It just depends on if you're getting lucky or unlucky under one of these bands. Right here was our Ed Lavandera. If you would have went to Ed Lavandera 20 minutes ago, he was getting pounded with thunderstorms. But right now that storm has moved just far enough to the east and now Ed's in the clear.

Every time one of these bans comes onshore, that's when you're going to see the wind pick up and the heavy rainfall pick up. In between the bands we're going to see basically nothing. Sky's clear, winds die, and all of a sudden you wait for the next one.

[14:25:08] But something else coming onshore are spinning thunderstorms. And some of them do have tornadoes with them. Not large tornadoes, but you can go on Twitter and look at the pictures from Katy, Texas, overnight, and see what happened there with a small tornado. It doesn't take a big tornado at 110 or 120 miles per hour to do damage. That's what we saw last night.

Even already Houston, Texas, has issued 50, 50 tornado warnings just since the storm started. And here's what we're expecting for the next few hours all the way into about what's that say 6:00 tomorrow morning, heavy, heavy rainfall on the eastern part. Here's what I would call the eye, although it's not truly the eye. It's just the center of circulation now because it isn't a hurricane anymore. But look at all of this rain. Very close or just to the north of Houston. And now all of that has to go right back into the Gulf of Mexico somehow. And if it goes through the city of Houston, that's where the catastrophic flooding will be occurring later on this week.

WHITFIELD: Wow, still a long way to go. All right, thank you so much, Chad Myers, appreciate that in the CNN weather center.

MYERS: You're welcome.

WHITFIELD: And we'll be right back.


WHITFIELD: Welcome back. Tropical storm Harvey is pummeling southern Texas, 70-mile-per-hour winds and torrential rain are giving officials reason to believe the worst is yet to come. [14:30:03] Despite Harvey being downgraded from a hurricane, life

threatening floods are still expected in the coming days. I want to bring in Robert Rocha. He's the fire chief of Corpus Christi, a city which is also seen and experienced some damage. So, chief, what are you seeing right now?

CHIEF ROBERT ROCHA, CORPUS CHRISTI, TEXAS, FIRE DEPARTMENT: Good afternoon, everybody. The city of Corpus Christi was hit last night by hurricane Harvey. We had a lot of downed power lines. We had some water, we had some high winds. We do have debris in the streets. And some lights are out. What we are seeing is wide areas of the community are without electrical power. It's impacting us greatly because it gets pretty warm down here during the summer. And so we expect power to be off for days, maybe even weeks.

WHITFIELD: Oh, my goodness. And then what about any rescue or recovery efforts? How does that power outage issue impact that? And what are you finding as you look for people?

ROCHA: Well, during the night when the storm was the greatest, we had to make sure that we only went on calls that were very necessary for first responders to be out there during the storm. However, Corpus Christi did not have very many rescues at all within our city limits. Most of the storm, the most powerful part of the storm was actually north of us. And we prayed very much for those for Port Aransas and from Rockport, Victoria, and all those cities that are -- had a little bit more damage than Corpus Christi did.

WHITFIELD: And do you have any idea how many people are, you know, left the area, how many people are, you know, still unaccounted for?

ROCHA: We didn't have that problem here in Corpus Christi. We did have people evacuate certain low levels of the city, in particular Padre Island, Flour Bluff, North Beach, Mustang Island, and areas that historically have flooded in the past. We did ship a lot of people up to San Antonio. Fortunately, though, we did not get the torrential rain that we expected. We probably got less than five inches of rain last night and early this morning.

WHITFIELD: Very good. All right, Corpus Christi Fire Chief Robert Rocha, wishing you the best in your recovery efforts.

All right, let's go now to Rockport, Texas, and where we find our Nick Valencia. It was a hard hit area. You're still getting some of the rain. What's taking place there?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Fredricka, this is just about as bad as we have seen it all day long, and this is just how hurricanes go. We just pulled up here to the public safety center. We're standing by for a 2:00 p.m. eastern news conference, but what I can tell you here is the rain is just hovering over us. This storm system is just sitting on top of us right now continuing to pour down rain on top of us. That wind is still as aggressive as ever.

There's been some developments here in the last time we were here earlier this morning, if you remember the first shot we had from here was just in this intersection behind me. In that time we've seen so many local agencies from surrounding counties show up here. I just want to step out of the way. You want to show the ambulances as well that have pulled up here. Those ambulances were not here this morning. There's at least three, maybe four of them that I can count from my vantage point.

A lot of the assistance has come from these neighboring counties at the request of the local sheriff. Rockport, we have been talking about it all day long here. It is one of the hardest hit if not the hardest hit community in south Texas. And we've been talking to residents. And what we've learned is it's just a wonderful community made up of people here who have been here for generations. It was last hour that we spoke to Reuben Sezon (ph), the owner of a jewelry store who didn't have insurance. He's been here about 15 years and lost his business. He says it's the same for the business next door to him, that jewelry store, that arts and crafts store, I should say, that we showed you as well that was just leveled.

All around this community it's building after building. We understand the local high school also took what we assume is a direct hit, partially tearing off a portion of that building. We know homes that have been boarded up have had their roofs ripped off. We've even seen, you know, some parts of the devastation, animals here that have hurt. We saw at least two injured birds in the area. It was really a sad sight to see. And unfortunately, the priority right now is not the animals. It's the people, trying to make sure that everyone here is accounted for. Those local officials from what we understand have been going door to door for the last several hours trying to make sure that everyone is accounted for. We're hoping to get an update on any injuries or possible fatalities here at this news conference coming up in just about 30 minutes from now. Fredricka?

WHITFIELD: All right, keep us posted. Good job, thanks so much, our Nick Valencia there in Rockport, Texas.

[14:35:00] So when the eye wall hit last night -- before I give you that perspective, I want you to hear from the mayor of Rockport, Charles Wax.

MAYOR CHARLES WAX, ROCKPORT, TEXAS: There is widespread devastation. The description you had of the hotel wall that had fallen in, that is true. We had a description of major damage at our high school and any number of businesses and homes that are either completely destroyed or have catastrophic damage.

As of right now I do not have any confirmed deaths, mostly because the teams have not been able to fully assess the damage. They left the public works center about an hour ago, have not yet returned, are trying to begin to assess the damage and start the recovery process. But the wind is still blowing at tropical storm values. And there's still blinding rain. We've already taken a severe blow from the storm. But we're anticipating another one when the flooding comes down from the interior of the state as the storm stalls and then all the rain heads back down our way toward the coast.

WHITFIELD: Rockport Mayor Charles Wax there. So when that eye wall hit last night, the images were truly

remarkable. Here are some of those dramatic moments of when Harvey made landfall.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're being hit by a pretty significant band from Harvey as it is making landfall here, about 50 miles as you mentioned south of where we are. We're here in Port Lavaca. There is Lavaca Bay just in front of me here. And that storm surge from Harvey is pushing water from the bay this way. That rain is coming through and it is stinging as the wind is blowing it sideways right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The storm surge has been a big issue further up the Texas coast. But here in Corpus we've been dealing mainly with this strong wind. And it's been going for about three or four hours now. This is a slow moving storm, which means that these winds are going to stay strong at least for a little while longer. And so there's going to be issues here in Corpus for a while longer.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: These are about some of the worst conditions I have ever been in during this type of a hurricane here. Look at that wind right there. Not only is the water parting, the wind is whipping it into a froth. There is no power anywhere in the city of Rockport. We are starting to see trees go down everywhere. We're starting to see a lot of debris. In fact, when we were sitting in our live truck earlier trying to get our story together, at one point we thought the truck was going to tip over. And that's with two full grown men sitting inside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Some people getting kicked out of this hotel. The owner's a little nervous, because apparently half the building is missing. This is only from the front half of the hurricane. This is incredible. This is kind of our first look, guys, at the first half of hurricane Harvey's damage in the parking lot. The eye is here. A second ago these were 140, 150-mile-an-hour gusts. Now it's a beautiful evening.


WHITFIELD: All right, some very dramatic moments there last night. So as Harvey ripped across south Texas, The White House released its own torrent of headlines overnight. Details on Trump's pardon of a controversial sheriff, and yet another departure of a top aide. That's next.


[14:42:16] WHITFIELD: As tropical storm Harvey continues to batter Texas, President Trump tweeted this morning that he's got an eye on the storm. The president tweeting this, "Closely monitoring hurricane Harvey from Camp David. We are leaving nothing to chance. City, state and federal governments working great together."

With much of America focused on the monster storm, President Trump now getting a lot of criticism for a series of headline moves made at the height of the hurricane's landfall last night. First the president pardoned former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio. The controversial lawman was convicted of criminal contempt related to targeting undocumented immigrants and was facing an October sentencing. Then word came that Trump's controversial White House advisor Sebastian Gorka was no longer working there. And that was followed up by another major headline as the president signed a directive banning transgender military recruits.

CNN White House correspondent Athena Jones joins us now to walk through all of these developments and the storm of controversy that these moves seem to be causing. Athena?

ATHENA JONES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Fred. Well, when it comes to pardoning Sheriff Joe Arpaio, this is something that the president hinted or suggested he would do in an interview, an exclusive interview with FOX News earlier this month from his Bedminster golf course. At that point he said that Arpaio had done a lot in the fight against illegal immigration.

We heard him on Tuesday night hint at that rally in Phoenix that sheriff Arpaio was going to be just fine, but kind of joking with the crowd saying he didn't want to make this announcement that night to sort of try to avoid controversy.

Well, now last night we got the official statement from the White House at 8:00 p.m. on this pardoning, this decision to pardon Sheriff Arpaio. We saw the president tweeting out about it a couple of hours later. In the White House statement they cite the sheriff's more than 50 years of admirable service to our nation.

But this move is getting a lot of blowback, precisely what you'd expect from folks who are not part of Trump's base, many of whom are immigration hardliners. Remember what Arpaio was convicted of. He was convicted of contempt for ignoring a court order to stop discriminating against Latinos. This is a racial profiling case dating back a decade in which he was -- he and his sheriff's department were targeting Latino motorists on the mere suspicion they might be undocumented immigrants.

So this is getting a lot of blowback, not least from one of the state's GOP senators, John McCain. I'll read to you from his statement. He said "the president has the authority to make this pardon, but doing so at this time undermines his claim for the respect of rule of law as Mr. Arpaio has shown no remorse for his actions."

[14:45:00] And so, Fred, what this does here is it seems -- we seem to have the president endorsing racial discrimination at precisely the time that he is getting a whole lot of criticism for his seeming to give comfort and cover to white supremacists in the wake of the violence we saw in Charlottesville earlier this month. And so it sends a message that if you're an ally of the president, the constitution, the courts, the law, civil rights, constitutional rights just may not matter. Fred?

WHITFIELD: All right, Athena Jones at the White House, thank you so much. So let's get some more perspective on all of these big changes inside

and outside the White House. We're joined now by Doug Heye, CNN political commentator and former RNC communications director, Alice Stewart, CNN political commentator and former Ted Cruz communications director. Good to see both of you.

Doug, you first. So was it appropriate for the president to do this Friday night at the height of a storm?

DOUG HEYE, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: I think when you see something happens on a Friday night, you know it's not a popular decision. In this case I don't think it was a wise one either. For me what I worry about not just the decision but the ramifications for Republicans running for office up and down the ballot next year. After the debacle we saw in Charlottesville with Trump's response just over the past couple weeks, I found it really hard to tell my African-American friends, Hispanic friends that the Republican Party was a place to go to for policies that are going to improve America, help improve their lives. I think that argument just got a lot harder. And it's something we're going to see over the next year, year-and-a-half, as Republicans are trying to win votes. This makes it harder for them to do so.

WHITFIELD: So, Alice, the sheriff was very supportive of Trump on the campaign trail. So is this kind of loyalty returned, or is there another message here?

ALICE STEWART, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: This is clearly a political move. It's not about what's legal and what is right with the law. It's a political move. And as Athena mentioned, it is repaying loyalty. The sheriff was one of the early ones to jump onboard with the president.

Also keep in mind this comes before the presidency. They were both hand in glove with regard to calling out President Obama and accusing him of not being an American citizen and the whole birther argument. The two of them worked together on pushing that narrative. And pardoning the sheriff here was a way for the president to pay him back, and also to give some red meat to his base. This is something that they support and certainly wanted to see happen.

The president looks at this as a way to say, look, the sheriff did nothing wrong. He was just doing his job and he went about, as many say, profiling individuals in the state of Arizona, he was doing his job. And with all of his public service he should be recipient of a presidential pardon.

Look, I view this as he's looking at protecting his base. The transgender and military ban, he views that as helping out conservatives who had been more opposed to the medical procedures for transgenders in the military, not a total ban on them, but he's looking at helping out his base with regard to transgenders in the military and the sheriff. With regard to Sebastian Gorka, the nationalist part of his base is going to be a little miffed about that, but he's hoping the other two issues will make up for that. But he needs to look at much more than satisfying the base. Politics is a game of addition and needs to add to his support and not keep it the same.

WHITFIELD: But that doesn't seem a concern --

HEYE: Fredricka, if I could say real quickly?

WHITFIELD: Go ahead, Doug. Yes.

HEYE: I would say real quickly I think one of the things intentionally or unintentionally that this pardon does is it sends a signal to folks who may be caught up in the Russia investigation that whether they did something wrong or not, at the end of the day there may be a pot of gold for them coming from the president.

WHITFIELD: Oh, that's interesting. OK, well, on the issue of the transgender ban, though, to Alice's point, if he is catering to appealing to his base, at what point, Doug, does this president think beyond broadening beyond his base and broadening support?

HEYE: Well, I don't think he has at all. And unfortunately, I think for Republicans, at least a lot of the ones I talk to in the House of Representatives, in the Senate, you can focus on red meat, as we call it, on the conservative side all you want, but we had a whole month where we could talk about tax reform, a whole month where we could talk about repealing and replacing Obamacare. Those things as we move into a very difficult September that look harder and harder to happen when we're asking questions about whether or not we're going to be able to keep the government open, focusing on those things might be a better priority for the president and this administration than just throwing red meat at conservatives who haven't gotten some of the accomplishments that they'd like to see so far.

WHITFIELD: And on this kind of trifecta of news, you know, with the resignation of Sebastian Gorka, so, Alice, is Gorka considered to be, you know, a big threat to the president outside of the White House, or will he be advocating for this president outside of the White House?

STEWART: Well, it remains to be seen. Look, there's still the controversy over what came first, the chicken or the egg. Did he quit or was he let go?

[14:50:00] The White House says he did not resign, he is no longer with the White House. So it looks as though he was clearly forced out. But, look, I'm going to look at this through rose colored glasses. Look, we had Steve Bannon and now Sebastian Gorka who were really strong solid with the populist nationalist movement, and they tried their best to try and continue their narrative in the White House and were not successful. Bannon left saying he will go to war for the president on his behalf from the outside. I'm hoping Gorka is the same, but I'm not really certain that's going to happen. He clearly appears to be angry, has been doing a lot of media since this happened to get his side of the story out there. So let's hope that he comes together in furthering his agenda. But that remains to be seen.

WHITFIELD: And, Doug, can you tell whether he'd be an advocate for the president outside the White House? HEYE: You know, we don't know. But Fredricka, let me tell you my

last conversation face-to-face with Reince Priebus about two months ago. He asked me what I was hearing. I said, well, it's not very good. He asked how much of it had to do with staff. I said, Reince, there's only one issue here and there's only going to be one issue. And if you love Donald Trump, if you love this administration and what it does, it's because of Donald Trump. If you don't love this administration and what it does, it's because of Donald Trump. That's going to stay that way regardless of who's hired, who's fired, what happens on a Friday night with particular staff. It becomes very unimportant theater that we all like to talk about, but it means we're taking our eye off the ball. This administration is about Donald Trump and Donald Trump only.

WHITFIELD: All right, Doug, Alice, we'll leave it there. Thanks so much to both of you. Appreciate it. And we'll be right back.

HEYE: Thank you.


[14:55:33] WHITFIELD: All right, right now three Texas prisons near Houston, that's northwest of Galveston, are evacuating in anticipation of rising floodwaters. The Texas department of criminal justice is moving more than 4,000 inmates to facilities in east Texas. And we're continuing to follow tropical storm Harvey as it churns over south Texas, drenching parts of the state. Texas Governor Abbott Greg -- Greg Abbott, that is, has declared a disaster in 50 counties. And he says as of yet there are no fatalities from that monster storm. And on the ground we're hearing horror stories from the path of Harvey.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: This is like 2:30 this morning and I just heard a loud noise. And I had my grandson. Whatever he learned in school he was prepared because he ran into the closet and he had his hand above his head like this and he was in a fetal position. I'm so proud of him. And then we ran out and we went under the steps because there's a coat closet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was crazy. It was like -- I was scared when I heard it outside.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, she was telling me it sounded like who's out driving in this weather? I'm like, baby, ain't nobody driving out there. And then she's saying like maybe it's a train or something, but really it's the wind, a lot of wind. But the tornado was coming through, passing through.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So we have seen the side of your mother-in-law's house, big holes all over the place, parts of the roof are gone. When you came over here were you surprised that this had happened?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I couldn't believe it. I thought it was just going to be some rain and maybe the hurricane, but not expecting no tornado to happen. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: And a lot of people have asked the same sort of

question, can this happen again? I mean, we're on day one of maybe four or five days of rain and wind and that sort of stuff. Are you worried you go to sleep tonight and you won't even know something like this is going on?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's not over yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It's scary. It's the second time something like that's happened and we didn't see a touchdown last time, but just get in the closet or get in the bathtub. They say get in the center part of your house, get away from windows and all that. And it's just a scary, eerie feeling. I heard that whistling and that freight train noise first time. And, I mean, I really -- I can't explain it. It's scary. I'm grateful and blessed my house didn't get touched.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This came from over there from that house, from the roof, from that house from all the way damage the side of the wall.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you think about something like this?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Devastating. First time, first experience, devastating.


WHITFIELD: All right, living through a hurricane very frightening. To help those affected by the storm, visit our website

I'm Fredricka Whitfield. Thanks so much for watching. Our special coverage continues with an Ana Cabrera after this.


ANA CABRERA, CNN ANCHOR: This is CNN newsroom, thank you for being with me. I'm Ana Cabrera in New York and we begin with some breaking news.

Harvey has been downgraded to a tropical storm and officials are warning the worst is still yet to come. The center of the storm right now is hovering around Victoria, Texas, that is southwest of Houston. It is packing strong winds just below hurricane strength. But right now the major concern is torrential rain and flooding. The National Hurricane Center warns there will be catastrophic and life threatening flooding. The governor says some areas have already seen 20 inches of rain and another 20 to 30 more could be on the way.