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Does criticizing Trump avoid deeper problems in the US?; "Catastrophic" flooding predicted as storm lashes Texas coast; ESPN removes broadcaster named Robert Lee

Aired August 26, 2017 - 09:30   ET



MICHAEL SMERCONISH, CNN ANCOR: I'm Michael Smerconish, sheltered from the storm, here in Philadelphia, we welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Against the back drama of a powerful storm hurricane Harvey, which hit the coast as a category 4, the White House dispensed a lot of news that didn't bode well for them. Was the timing on purpose? The pardoning of Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio on charges of contempt. The resignation of adviser Sebastian Gorka. And the signing of executive order of transgender's in the military. I'll discuss the long term implications of each.

Plus the drum beats from some who wish to repeal and replace the President. Are they missing a crucial point? America's problems run much deeper than any one person, or at least so I'll argue.

And Roberts Lee was removed this week -- not the general's statue, but an ESPN broadcaster slated for next week's UVA football game. Is this political correctness one amok? I'll talk to the sports radio host who first exposed the story.

But first, on a hot August night with a major storm brewing it was big news from the White House. A hat trick of headlines. Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was convicted of contempt of court because he would not stop racially profiling Hispanics was pardoned by the president. Close Steve Bannon-ed advocate Sebastian Gorka either quit or was fired from the White House. And the President signed an order which precludes transgender individuals from joining the military. It will be up to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis if those already in the armed forces can continue to serve.

All of that coming after 6:00 p.m., while the Texas coast braced for the landing of a then category 4 hurricane, the most powerful to hit the US since 2004. If it was a deliberate attempt to bury the news in a storm, well, God had other plans, as I tweeted before sunrise.

Here's what I said when I first woke up. And in the 24/7 cycle in which we live where everybody is tethered to a smart phone or computer, I think the premise that you can hide news on a Friday night is a dated concept. None of us waiting for a Saturday morning or afternoon newspaper. Those days are long over. And stories today are rarely one and done. They build, they linger.

The Gorka dismissal, the transgender ban might get less attention but I don't think the bard of Joe Arpaio will be lost in the storm. The question is whether and why the president would want to bury that news to begin with. Last Tuesday in phoenix, he telegraphed his intention and as evidenced by the crowd reaction in that arena plays well to the base. They love it. Even where critics say, wait a minute, Arpaio defied a federal court's order that he stopped violating people's constitutional rights.

President Trump hasn't shown concern for building his base which is why it puzzles that he'd want to keep the pardon out of prime time. The bigger take-away from last night is the message the pardon might be sending to those investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller. Will they now be emboldened believing that the President will have their back if they become legally entangled.

That might be the bigger message sent by the Arpaio pardon. Although there's a pitfall, any one pardoned by the President loosed their 5th Amendment rights for that crime, meaning that someone pardoned could be compelled to testify where they previously could have remained silent. Joining me now to discuss Frank Sesno is the director of George Washington school of media and public affairs. Frank, am I right in arguing that it's a dated concept, this notion that on an august Friday with a mammoth storm bearing down you could hide news?

FRANK SESNO, DIRECTOR GEORGE WASHINTON UNIV. SCHOOL OF MEDIA & PUBLIC AFFAIRS: Well, you're partially right. I'm always going to give you that due deference here because I'm here on your show. This is a very different environment we are in now. Bill Clinton like to dump, and his White House dumped as much bad news as they could on a Friday night with the Lewinsky business. But that was a time as you said before smart phones before the President of the United States had 30 plus million followers listening or tracking most every word on twitter.

That being said, Michael there is still an effect of trying to put this news out that I think is both manipulative and indicative of some things. Manipulative in that there is less ecosystem for other people, especially critics to take to explain, explore. It's also indicative of less, I think, less respect for the transparency and the purpose of explaining to the public what


the president is doing. There are no briefings at the White House. Sarah Huckabee sanders is not standing in front of a camera and taking questions and preparing with journalists. Though, there is a lower profile some what any way, to these sort of things. It will take shape, as you say, over time. This is not going away. But there's a lot going both in terms of Friday night and Saturday in those people's lives, their busy and in terms of the hurricane that occupying so much attention.

SMERCONISH: as between the two of us you obviously have the credentials elative to the media world, and that's why I come to you. I'm more of the political animal. As I look for the decision for these announcements to have been made against the dark backdrop of that storm, I say to myself, I'm not sure it's even in his interests to keep it buried. Because, for example, the Arpaio news that plays extremely well to his base, and thus far, Frank Sesno, this president has been most concerned with maintaining the base and not growing it.

SESNO: Absolutely 100% correct. Which is why, at that rally in Arizona the other day, he said to his crowd, Joe Arpaio, I think he's going to be jut fine. But then he also said I'm not saying anything tonight because that could be controversial. And that reflects the advice and the hard counsel he's getting from the political pros, the communication pros, the image meisters (ph) out there telling the president not to do it because it could be disruptive and they were actually worried about what would happen on the ground. But they are the ones that try to calibrate the information, and try to figure out how you put something out and how you spin it. And whether there's any prospect of growing the President's base.

And that's where the concern and controversy hits. So, you know, this will work with the base. The base will find out other people as well but it doesn't have the -- The thing that I'm concerned about, Michael, I think when you do something like this from the White House and I say this both as a former White House correspondent, and someone who studies the media and has been watching this very closely, there needs to be, there should be, a discussion with the public.

That's hard on the media environment we're in now. That's hard on the political environment we're in now. When you're doing things pardoning someone cited for contempt. When you're reversing long -- not longstanding, but reversing transgender and other things in the military, that calls for some discussion, it calls for some transparency, and we're not seeing that from this administration.

SMERCONISH: And finally to weigh in on my thought as expressed at the outset of the program, that the bigger take-away from the Arpaio pardon might be the message that it sends to anyone currently entangled in the Russian probe?

SESNO: Absolutely, I think that's a very powerful signal this sends. This is a very early pardon that a President is issuing. It goes in some conflict with longstanding justice department practice. That Pardons come, you know, years after convictions, normally. After serious review. This pardon also deals with a person, Sheriff Arpaio, who was cited in contempt. And he's basically said publicly and on a number of different ways, I've got your back.

So, as Mueller's probe intensifies, as he just this last week increased the subpoenas being issued for those close to the president are involved in the campaign it is a signal to others that the president could have their back and they'll be all right, as well. Look, he's not the first to do this, George H.W. Bush pardon the former defense secretary John Caspar Weinberger in the Iran contra affair. Let's give a little due to the President here to. This pardon authority is broad and its longstanding. But there's no question a message is being sent here.

SMERCONISH: Well and, Frank, also, the president correctly stated at least in the eyes of many, the guy's 85 years old he's had a long and he says and thinks a distinguished career. And for many, that's a legitimate justification for the pardon to have been exercised. Frank Sesno, Thank you so much for being here.

SESNO: My pleasure.

SMERCONISH: Now, for the latest on hurricane Harvey which hit the US harder than any storm in a decade, you're seeing some pictures from North Padre, Arkansas, which bore the brunt of hurricane Harvey's category 4 strength eye wall. North Padre Island which is just south of port Arkansas is located close to the eye wall we go to CNN's Nick Valencia in Rockport, Texas, 30 miles north east of Corpus Christy of where the damage has been extensive.

[09:10:00] SMERCONISH: Nick you able to hear me. He is not able to hear me. We'll check back in with nick valencia. Obviously, trying to keep himself outside of harm's way.

Kathryn, in the meanwhile, hit me with the twitter reaction what i had to say at the outset of the program, what do we got?

This comes from Delvin Dinkins, this comes from facebook. Mr. President wants you to be forced to choose which to focus on so he can then criticize the media for choosing politics over hurricane Harvey.

Hey Delvin can I say something to you that I've been thinking? Thank God for fake news. Thank God, that people -- I'm saying this tongue in cheek obviously -- that people are being kept and safe from the storm and from the ravages from hurricane Harvey because they've been paying attention to CNN and knew what was coming. You know, you can't have it both ways. You can ridicule a media outlet on which millions, literally, are relying on to keep themselves safe. That's what's going on as we speak.

Up ahead, in the wake of the President's remarks after that rationally charged event in Charlottesville came more questions about his fitness for office. I think the problem runs deeper than just who's in the White House. I'll explain.

And the very latest on the devastating impact of hurricane Harvey which hit the Texas coast as a category 4 last night.


SMERCONISH: You're looking at the latest video of the overnight devastation from hurricane Harvey. These pictures are of North Padre Island. The Barrier Island on the southern coast of Texas. The storm which was the largest storm to hit US mainland in over a decade. Came in overnight as a category 4, pounding the state of Texas and millions of its residents. The winds hit 130 miles an hour. They knocked down trees and power poles and signs.

Texans are starting to wake up to the damage. We don't know the full extent yet, but we promise we'll keep you posted throughout the course of the hour.

In the meantime, another political storm was brewing in Washington, D.C. Last night President Trump created so much news that I can't ignore. The pardoning of the sheriff Joe Arpaliio, the resignation of Sebastian Gorka and the signing of the transgender order in the military.

Joining me now Professor Zellzer, as pardons go, where does this rank, some are for more egregious conduct than others.

PROFESSOR ZELLZER: There controversial ones, President Clinton when he pardoned Mark Rich. With connections to the family. And the most famous, for Richard Nixon for crimes he might have committed.

And George H. W. bush pardoning several members of the Regan administration including Caspar Weinberger for their involvement in Iron contract. That will fall on that list. There's justification for doing this in terms of it, it circumvents the judicial process.

And it seems to be clear that political message to the base that Donald Trump or ran in 2016 is exactly the president who is on issues like immigration.

CNN ANCHOR: McKay Koppens to the professors point a bout the message it sends to the base. Why not announce it Tuesday night. Tuesday night you saw him in front of that rally with folks in Phoenix.

When he referenced Sheriff Joe, they were effusive in their praise and cheering. Why didn't he simply say, hey, I'm pardoning him and it's done?

MCKAY KOPPENS, STAFF WRITER, THE ATLANTIC: Yes, it's a good question. There's two reasons. One, there is genuine concern about the reaction on the ground there in Arizona. Already outside of the event where President Trump was speaking.

There were protests that turned ugly as police clashed with protestors. We can also coming on the heels of Charlottesville and the violence there. There was concern with Trump aides about what kind of violence would end up occurring or seen outside of that event.

That's one reason. I think the other reason, frankly, you discussed it earlier on the show, but this wasn't just a message to the base. I think it was a message to the base. I think it was also a message to this loyal aides and allies, who are now kind of coming under scrutiny from the Mueller probe.

And who, you know, Trump wants to make a point that; he's going to look out for the people who look out for him. You know, he has the pardon power. He's using it earlier than Presidents usually do. And he's showing that he's not afraid to pardon controversial people.

And I think that message is going to be received.

CNN ANCHOR: Hey Julian, I'm not a believer in coincidence. We have you in a split screen right now. And we're showing the devastation of this hurricane. Is there any precedent for something like this?

I mean, it was after 6:00 P.M. In the East when we got the transgender news. Gorka is out, And of course what we're talking about, the Arpaio pardon, all, cloaked, against the backdrop of this storm. Can you remember a politician; pardon the Dylan reference, seeking shelter from the storm previously to do a document drop?

ZELLZER: Look, I don't off hand. But, I'm not sure if he was seeking shelter from the storm. I think this is a President who understands the news cycle in different ways than most of us and previous Presidents. I don't think he needs to follow the traditional rhythm. We've had many weekends where big news happens with President Trump.

And there's a part of me that imagines that when many Americans are watching a storm which is the kind of even that attracts a lot of viewers, the President knew exactly what he was doing with a series of decisions, particularly the pardon.

Particularly the transgender people order which appeal to the people who love him the most. And so, I'm not sure he was trying to bury this. I think he is constantly trying to find new ways to announce key positions in the media cycle which not everyone understands the dynamics of him.

CNN ANCHOR: Okay, are you saying he is so sophisticated in terms of giving good ear to the message of that will be resonating with people that he knew we would be couch potatoes watching the development of the hurricane Harvey. And said, this is exactly when I will do it. I want them to see it?


ZELLZER: Well, sophisticated is not necessarily the word I would use. But he does understand television. And he does watch it. He understands the dynamics. And so, I could imagine the President says, now, I'm going to make this announcement. And it will get the attention that I want.

And it won't necessarily get all of the news coverage that will clearly be negative. I don't know the logic of the President, but I could imagine him seeing the events and making the announcement on purpose.

CNN ANCHOR: McKay, what do you think of Zellazer's theory?

MCKAY: I'll be honest with you, it makes total sense. The one place I don't think we can underestimate Trump is his instinct for Media. He is a television guy. He had a reality show; he's obsessed with cable news and the news cycle.

It's not as completely far-fetched as he would use the pending Hurricane and the crisis that could cause a way to, you know, piggyback offer of that and make news of his own.

CNN ANCHOR: Hey, Mckay, is Sebastian Gorka more a threat outside the presidency, does the president have to be careful to consider a relationship with Bannon and Gork, lest they turn to him? MCKAY: He absolutely does. That's when I saw the news that Gorka had resigned. Whatever the case, he's not in the tent anymore and that is a problem for Donald Trump. Bannon - you know, Steve Bannon's ouster is more threatening. But Seb Gorka is an incendiary figure in his own right.

He has built up and audience, kind of a hawkish terrorism guy. He wrote a very controversial book called "Defeating Jihad." What we saw I the resignation letter that he gave it to the press that he kind of sold out the message that brought him into the White House.

Their incentive is going to be to continue their careers and build their own audiences. And their base is not happy with the way things are going in the Trump presidency, in terms of who's running it, whos in charge.

And I think we're going to hear a lot more from Mr. Gorka as well as Mr. Bannon and the others.

CNN ANCHOR: Julian Zellazer, McKay Copens, I appreciate it.

ZELLAZER: Thank you.

CNN ANCHOR: Kathryn, hit me with FaceBook comments. Smerconish, right, as we retired newspaper editor the Friday afternoon bad news syndrome is dead. Bill, I think that's dead.

Bill, I think that's true. I think we're all tethered to smart foreign and computers 24/7, of course, the cable channels, lead among them CNN, never sleeps. And they just offered a pretty interesting theory. I hope I didn't bait him into it, but the thought to the contrary; the President wants his news reviewed.

He knows the television habits of Americans. He knows that we're paying obsessive attention to Hurricane Harvey. And he figured this is when I'm going to drop the news. Do we have time for one more? Smerconish, this is simple real Donald Trump has to make the news cycle about him.

We won't allow #Harvey2017 to take it away from him. Yeha, doesn't want to get one up by a category 4.

Up ahead - the very latest and as president Trump has rallied his base and continues to divide, there's been a lot of talk of his fitness for office. But getting rid of him will not solve the real problem in this country. I'm about to explain.

Plus, Robert Lee was removed in Charlottesville, Virginia, not the statue of the Confederate General, but ESPN's similarly named sportscaster from next weeks UVA football game. Was it, as many think, political correctness run amok, or was it just correct?

[09:15:00] CNN ANCHOR: You're looking at the latest video of the overnight devastation from Hurricane Harvey. These pictures are in North pad Delay Island. A barrier island which bore the brunt of the storm. It came in as a category 4. Winds over 130 miles an hour.

Knocked down power poles and signs and trees. The Texans are starting to wake up to the damage. We don't know the full extent of the damage but we'll keep you posted.

Last week, I was off, but, of course, I couldn't get away from the news.

In normal times, a member of the Media was safe in taking a vacation while a President was away. Instead the presidents remarks came more worries for his fitness in office and increased drug beat to somehow get rid of it.

But thanks to the distance afforded by my vacation, I had a revelation. And here it is, Donald Trump is not the nations primary problem.

If only it were as easy as replacing on man or riding out two terms to solve our grievances, don't misunderstand me, what I'm saying, the President's many side reaction to the place in Charlottesville a place sustained on his tenure that will never be erased.

But we face something even worse. And that will require much more work. Our problems run much worse than any one person. And that's a point overlooked by his harshest critics who are so vehement in their opposition, that they delude themselves from thinking his removal from office will be Panacea.

They speak increasingly of the 25th amendments never used remnants to discharge the powers and duties of his office. They were hardened to be echoed by GOP Senator Bob Corker and former director of National intelligence James Clapper.

And next month, these conversations will grow even louder when a book is released in which two dozen mental health officials will argue that the president is dangerously mentally ill and poses a clear and present danger to the nation. That's not going to help either.

No good comes from mental health professionals diagnosing a patient they've never met much less examined. Just think of a precedent that's going to set.

But here's the thing, getting rid of President Trump might solve some of people's wounds, but it may alienate the nation. Considered a that a Maris poll last week showed that one-fifth of trump supporters in the Pennsylvania and Wisconsin now say they're quote/unquote embarrassed by his conduct as President.

But he still has the support of most of those who voted for him as President. And for many, the faith is unshakeable. 6 in 10, 61% of his supporters surveyed told Monmouth University pollsters that they cannot think of anything that Trump can do to make them disapprove of his performance. A similar number of those opposed to him.

57% said that they will never change their disapproval. So, my point is we face an enormous divide. Not just about President Trump, but also concerning the issues that are unfolding on his watch.

Still, let's not conflate those who supported the Presidents initial Charlottesville statements, with an endorsement of the Nazi marchers themselves. The latter are irredeemable. But the former are still our neighbor. And we need to figure out a way to reach out to them.

And we need to figure out a way to reach out to them. I'm not talking about torch-bearing racists, but those who voted out of sense of desperation and fear that the American dream is dying.

The many noncollege educated white males are unsettled by a changing demographic, boy job loss and deeply feel the impact of income inequality. Where the democratic party has failed to offer hope to this formerly reliable constituency, Donald Trump was able to fill the void by castigating trade deals and immigration policy when, in fact, they've lost stature due to the dual forces of technology and globalization.

My vacation revelation was this. Forget about President Trump. The greatest challenge we face is in re-engaging his core supporters in a national conversation based on evidence, not emotion. And that's going to require less condescension from the left and no more lumping of them with the worst elements of the alt-right.

But in order for that to happen, it will take much more than the downfall of a president. It will require the driving of a wedge between them and the provocateurs on whom they are overly reliant for their news and information. Fix that and we will be better suited for the long-term.

In the meantime, Donald Trump is a manifestation of what ails us, but his departure from office, whenever that might come, will not mark the end of domestic hostilities.

Joining me now to discuss, two twentysomethings who are trying to be part of the solution. Nick Troiano is the executive director of The Centrist Project, the grassroots organization which is trying to encourage independent candidates to run for public office, and Steven Olikara is the founding president of the millennial action project, which is dedicated to getting millennials to overcome partisan gridlock.

Steven, you first. React to the commentary I just delivered.

STEVEN OLIKARA, FOUNDER AND PRESIDENT, MILLENNIAL ACTION PROJECT: Well, thanks for having me on Michael. And welcome back from vacation. I think we're living in a time of extreme political tribalism. And what we need to understand as a country is that Trump is more of the symptom than the cause of many of the problems that we're facing.

We've founded our organization, Millennial Action Project, to address many of these divisions that you talked about before President Trump was even a candidate.

And we saw the worsening political polarization and the loss of economic opportunity, the disaffection from our political system that was happening across the board, but disproportionately in places like my home state of Wisconsin, which were decisive for President Trump.

So, we need to look at the longer-term trends here. For those who want to just get rid of Trump from office as soon as possible, what's the point if we're going to see another Trumpian figure emerge after that on the left or the right. So, we need to address these underlying issues.

[09:35:07] And George Washington predicted this in his farewell address, where he talked about the extreme factionalism of our country; and if that would occur, then we would make ourselves vulnerable to authoritarian tendencies and foreign corruption and influence.

So, that's exactly what we're seeing today. And President Trump knew in 2016 that the politics of grievance would be much more powerful than the politics of big ideas and visionary thinking.

And so, I really see him as more of a non-ideological pragmatist. He knew what it took to win, but I think we need right now in our country, as you mentioned, Michael, a national conversation of how we can reconcile our differences. And I think that would be a very patriotic thing to do as a country.

SMERCONISH: Nick, you speak of negative partisanship. Explain that notion because I think what you're about to say is that by focusing all the attention on any one individual, we're actually making the polarization problem in the country worse because everybody has got to take sides.

NICK TROIANO, ?EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, THE CENTRIST PROJECT: Absolutely. As Steven was saying, and I agree, Trump is a symptom of our problems. The underlying disease is a dysfunctional democracy that our governing institutions are broken.

We are so paralyzed because of this polarization. And it is making is incapable of addressing any of the major challenges facing our country, and that's because we basically have two opposition parties in our country right now, who, in a zero-sum game of politics, only care about pointing out how bad the other side is.

So, it's no wonder that over the last 20 years, the number of Democrats who view the Republican Party as very unfavorable and vice versa has more than tripled. And so, the animating factor in our politics right now is fear, hatred and distrust of the other side, and that is why our country so desperately needs an alternative to both parties.

At The Centrist Project, we believe that is independent leaders who can put country first, who can find common ground and who can unite us around a positive and constructive vision for where we go.

SMERCONISH: Nick and Steven, I wish I had more time, but, as you know, we're also covering this mammoth storm. We'll do this again and I appreciate both of your good work.

Now for the latest on Hurricane Harvey, we go live to CNN correspondent at Ed Lavandera. He is in Galveston, Texas. Ed?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Good morning, Michael. Well, here in Galveston, Texas, we're on the eastern edge of this storm.

And considering that this storm made landfall late last night and that the winds are still pushing as strong as they are and the rain is coming down the way it is right now really gives you a sense and kind of reinforces exactly what emergency officials here along Southeast Texas Gulf Coast and inland have been extremely worried.

The rainfall continuing and expected to continue throughout the day and really pushing toward the flooding events that many emergency officials here have been dreading and worried about as we head into the weekend, Michael.

So, we have been told that have been rescue teams, high water and swift water rescue teams, prepositioned throughout to the region to react to those situations as they develop. So, not only this morning is there a concern about those communities like Rockport and Port O'Connor that took the direct hit from the eye of this storm, but there is also great concern as the rainfall continues.

Exactly how quickly and where is the flooding, potentially deadly flooding, going to develop here in the hours ahead, that is one of those things that emergency officials up and down the coast from Galveston, all the way down to Corpus Christi are extremely worried about this morning.

SMERCONISH: Hey, Ed, help me disabuse viewers from the notion that because they went to bed and it was a Category 4 and now is at a Category 1 that somehow everybody is out of the woods, so to speak. This is still a volatile and dangerous situation.

LAVANDERA: It is. And more often than not, we've covered enough of these storms, and you realize that it isn't necessarily that people are injured, severely injured or killed in the immediate impact of the storm and in the wind impact.

It's the decisions that people make afterwards, getting out into the storms, driving through floodwaters, getting swept away. And that's on a normal hurricane where the hurricane continues to push inland. But here, we have a situation where this particular hurricane is essentially stalling out, expected to stall out for several days, dumping in isolated areas. They're talking about in some places 3 feet of water. That's just insane levels of floodwaters.

And if the storm sits over where we are, as you can see, the wind right now is pushing inland. There is no way for those floodwaters to recede and push back out to the Gulf of Mexico. So, it's going to take a lot of time for this water to be able to move out of these situations.

[09:40:08] So, especially if you get into the more rural communities, where there are downed power lines, creeks and tributaries that have spilled over roadways, that's what becomes a really treacherous situation.

And even though, it might look a little deceiving here on Galveston Island where you see we haven't really lost power, some people even venturing out on to the roadways, now this is a built-up area, but in more remote areas, that could become a very treacherous and deadly situation.

So, we can't stress it enough. Emergency officials are really pleading and asking people to stay off the roads in those areas and to be very cognizant of where these floodwaters - it's hard to tell people to evacuate from a flood because they don't know where the flood is going to spring up.

That's something that you have to react to and be ready for. And all of this will happen very quickly, but it's not like it can pinpointed on a map that this is exactly where a flood is going to occur. These emergency teams have to react to this.

SMERCONISH: Ed Lavandera in Galveston, thank you. Stay safe. And now for more on Hurricane Harvey, we're joined by CNN's Nick Valencia. He's in Rockport, 30 miles northeast of Corpus Christi where the damage has been extensive.

Nick, are you there?

NICK VALENCIA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Michael - yes, I can hear you. I'm coming to you on a satellite phone because that is the only transmission that we have at this point. All cell towers have been knocked down.

Rockport has taken a direct hit from Hurricane Harvey and it looks like some of the worst damage I've ever seen.

I'm with a crew of very seasoned journalists here that have covered the likes of Hurricane Katrina's damage, they think here (INAUDIBLE) this damage here in Rockport.

What I'm looking at right now, I'm standing outside of the Public Safety Center in Rockport, I'm looking at about half a dozen police cars with the windows blown out, flagpoles bent over at the base. As a matter of fact, I was just speaking with the sheriff here, Bill Mills, who was really fearful. I can't begin to describe the looks in everybody that we see here, the look in their eyes.

And what scenes that they had experienced overnight, they just describe it as, simply put, going through hell. The sheriff tells me that he believes that 50 to 60 percent of the town's (INAUDIBLE).

Just to give you a sense of how fearful they were as this storm approached, the mayor pro tem of this city was encouraging residents to write their social security numbers and names on their forearms in case first responders had to recover their bodies.

And those first responders (INAUDIBLE) in the last hour. So, they're just now getting out to assess the damage.

I asked the local sheriff here what they need, he says we need all the help from the state that we can get. He has at least 60 people, first responders, working here, including a volunteer fire staff. We just came from that volunteer fire department. It is made up of a collection of college-age volunteers who rode out the storm there at that department. They said it was the worst weather they've ever been through.

I have a crowd forming around me right now because there is no way for people here to contact their families to let them know that they are OK.

As a matter of fact, we are one of the only newsgroups here. We're joined by a local affiliate here, KRIS. Their new station, we're told, has been trying to get in touch with them for the last three hours, as have their family members. They like to tell their families that they are OK.

We also have a couple of residents here, who are trying to use our satellite phones to call some of their family members, to let them know that they are alive.

This damage, Michael, is extensive, it's wide-ranging, it's significant. There's rain that continues to fall on us right now. The wind gusts are still aggressive. This damage in Rockport, parts of it are still barely standing.


SMERCONISH: I would think that when the sheriff says, if you're sticking around, you better write your Social Security number on your forearm, that would be the ultimate wake-up call.

Is there any sign of anybody who didn't pay heed to the advice to get out of harm's way?

VALENCIA: Well, I have you, the sheriff also told me that they were jacked up with 30 calls last night of people who were saying everything, that their roofs were ripping off, their homes, walls were falling on people. But because the sheriffs were pinned down in their own department, they couldn't get out to help people. They said that, at one point, during the eye of the storm, they had a window to rescue about 20 people, transfer them to a safe location.

But they say, as far as they know, all of the first responders are counted for, but they really, really are fearful that they're going to find people that have perished as a result of this storm because, as I mentioned, in this small town, the sheriffs estimate that at least half of them decided to ride out this storm. Michael?

[09:45:10] SMERCONISH: Nick Valencia, thank you. Thank you. Stay safe in Rockport, Texas.

Now, a decade ago, I literally wrote the book on political correctness. It was called Muzzled, in which I excoriated all things PC, even questioned whether it would harm our ability to win the war on terror. It was briefly a "New York Times" bestseller.

So, when I first heard the story about ESPN reassigning an Asian broadcaster from a live stream of the UVA football game next Saturday because his name is Robert Lee, same as the Confederate general who statue inspired the troubling rally in Charlottesville, I, like many, others cried foul.

Upon reflection, I'm not so sure. The story originated with a sports radio host that "The Daily Beast" calls the Alex Jones of sports, referring to the right-wing radio provocateur.

On Tuesday, "Fox Sports" radio host Clay Travis Travis first revealed the story on his website Outkick the Coverage, and made it part of his larger allegation that the sports network has such a liberal slant that he's taken to labeling it MSESPN. Is he correct?

SMERCONISH: Clay Travis is joining me now. Hey, Clay, initially when I heard it, I said this is insanity. The guy who has no connection whatsoever to Robert E. Lee, to Charlottesville, et cetera, et cetera, they're going to now reassign him.

And then, I started to reflect on it and read ESPN's explanation. Is it possible they were looking out for his brand that this was a rare case of an employer actually acting with the best interest at heart of an employee because some knucklehead was going to make him a meme if they didn't do so?

CLAY TRAVIS, "FOX SPORTS" RADIO HOST: Have you seen the Internet since they did this anyway. They turned this guy - this poor guy into a three-day Internet memeathon. If that was their goal, they're idiots.

No, look, you know how this works. When a major multibillion-dollar corporation comes to you, as ESPN admitted they did, and said, hey, we've got some trepidation about your name being the same as a Confederate general who died in 1870 and, therefore, we don't think it's a great idea for you to call the game that we've assigned you to at the University of Virginia, what do you think? Most everybody out there who's getting paid a couple of grand and wants to make a living calling football games, this is the first football game this guy has ever called, is going to defer to the multibillion-dollar corporation.

So, I think what ESPN did here was they threw this guy under the buss and then they drove over him and then they backed over him again when this story came out because they tried to blame him for the decision that they made.

So, no, I think this is an example - you hear all the time, right? Donald Trump came on and he said, what are we going to do about Thomas Jefferson, what are we going to do about George Washington, and everybody says, oh, that's a ridiculous argument associated with Robert E. Lee. That's a slippery slope argument.

I think the problem with ESPN is this isn't even a slippery slope argument. This is an Asian guy at the bottom of the slope that absolutely nothing to do with the story at all, and everybody has become so fearful of doing anything that offends anyone that ESPN made an awful decision here.

This guy was the victim. ESPN has become a far-left wing sports network and this is just further evidence of this fact.

And by the way, Michael, it's important to know here, I think you'll think this is important. It was ESPN employees who tipped me off to this story. And they said, my God, you're so right about the criticism of our network, we don't have the freedom to say our political beliefs, look how crazy this is, they reassigned an Asian man named Robert Lee from a Robert E. Lee connection in a football game that nobody would've made the connection to. And, basically, the entire universe out there has said these guys made an awful decision.

SMERCONISH: Look, the thing is absolutely ridiculous. It would've been a chapter in that book of mine a decade ago because it's exactly what I was shining a spotlight on.

I'm just trying to be nuanced and say, as idiotic as it was, were they trying to act in his best interest because they perceived everybody else to be as politically correct as they were?

TRAVIS: Well, that's a great point. And I think this is why I've been - look, I worked on the Al Gore presidential campaign. I'm a lifelong Democrat who is now kind of driven insane by what the left- wing has become a part of.

And so, this is an example of where I think legitimately diversity of thought matters. If you or I had been there, middle-of-the-road guys, right, raised our hand and said, wait a minute, if we do this - let's think about the worst-case scenario. If we allow this guy call the game, then for 45 minutes or an hour, nobody's watching really, University of Virginia against William and Mary unless you're a diehard fan, right?

For 45 minutes or an hour, maybe somebody takes a screenshot, they make a joke, they say, hey, look, Robert E. Lee is trying to sneak back into Charlottesville, right? And it doesn't last at all. That's the worst-case scenario.

[09:50:11] Instead they did this. I think this is a lack of diversity of thought.

SMERCONISH: No doubt. They perpetuated the whole thing. All right, Clay. Look, I said here was my first reaction. Now, I'm trying to be more nuanced. I'm back to where I began. Thank you for being here.

Still to come. Our storm coverage will continue as well as some of your tweets and Facebook comments. What have we got?

Robert Lee could take a cue from Prince and change his name to the sportscaster formerly known as Robert Lee.

No, Northend Rick (ph), you and I have never heard of Robert Lee the broadcaster before this. I maintain the guy is now on the map in a way that he otherwise would not be.

Back in a sec.


[09:55:22] SMERCONISH: Much more CNN's continuing coverage as you see the live footage of Hurricane Harvey is in the on-deck circle.

One tweet which came in during the course of my program today. Let me see it.

Smerconish, Harvey was getting more coverage than Trump. He simply had to do something. Jerry (ph), I think we need to reevaluate the model of whether you can do a Friday document dump even in August and in the face of a storm because the news media has grown exponentially from the era in which that idea was hatched. My way of saying, will be debating the Sheriff Joe Arpaio pardon for a long time to come.

OK. Stay right here on CNN for more on the hurricane.