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Interview With Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; North Korea Nuclear Fears; Hurricane Relief Efforts; Houston Mayor: 8,000 Estimated in Shelters, Number Rising; Lawyer: Trump Organization Pursued a Moscow Trump Tower During Election. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired August 28, 2017 - 18:00   ET



JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Harrowing rescues. Emergency teams are working around the clock in the air, in boats, and on the ground, racing to save storm victims. Tonight, growing questions about whether hard-hit Houston should have evacuated.

Trump's political storms. The president is defending his controversial pardon of former Sheriff Joseph Arpaio, and speaking out about U.S. relations with Russia and who will pay for his border wall. Where is his attention focused tonight as he prepares to visit the disaster zone?

Ominous launch. North Korea reportedly firing another missile tonight, escalating tensions with the United States and ratcheting up fears of attack in Japan. CNN is live in North Korea tracking Kim Jong-un's dangerous new moves.

We want to welcome our viewers in the United States and around the world. Wolf Blitzer is off today. I'm Jim Sciutto. And you're in THE SITUATION ROOM.

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: Breaking tonight, President Trump is promising full support for recovery from Hurricane Harvey as millions of Americans suffer through a disaster that is growing worse by the hour.

Right now, it is unclear how many people remain trapped in unprecedented floodwaters, swamping much of Southeast Texas. New evacuations are under way in some communities as the death toll in the flood zone climbs now to seven. Texas now deploying all its 12,000 National Guard troops to aid in this emergency urgent operation.

More than 2,000 people have been rescued in Houston, pulled from standing cars, flooded homes and streets now turned to rivers. Much of the nation's fourth largest city is underwater, up to waist deep and still rising.

At least 15 trillion gallons of rain, about 25 inches or so, falling since Harvey hit land as a powerful Category 4 hurricane on Friday night. As the storm hovers over the region, some areas could get up to 50 inches of rain by Saturday. That's more than Houston sees on average in an entire year.

The rain and the danger extending into Louisiana, where a state of emergency has been declared.

Also breaking, we are learning new details about the missile that North Korea reportedly launched just a short time ago. Officials in the region say that it flew over Japan and into the Pacific. The Japanese government is calling it an unprecedented grave threat. Stand by for a live update from inside North Korea.

We're covering all of that with our guests including Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. She represents a large area of Houston. Our correspondents and specialists also standing by.

First to CNN's Brian Todd. He joins us live from Houston.

Brian, you're outside I believe the Convention Center now. What are you seeing there where many people are fleeing to safety tonight?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That's right, Jim. People behind me taking refuge here at the Convention Center. We are told maybe about 5,000 people will be here by the day's end.

Some of these people were rescued from their homes in dramatic fashion. That has really been the story today. We just got back here from going out with a team of private rescuers who got to some people really without much time to spare.


TODD (voice-over): Floodwaters are still rising in Houston and its suburbs, making rescues an urgent priority. In house after house, stranded residents signaling for help.

Maralyn Rice and her daughter Lisa are said overnight the waters in their house rose and rose.

MARALYN RICE, FLOOD VICTIM: Everything started floating. And we picked up where we could to try to save it, but it didn't do no good, because the water just took over everything.

TODD: They were up all night and were huddled on the hood of their car until they were rescued by good samaritans.

RICE: I thank God for these gentlemen.

TODD: Another resident, Beverly Johnson, was waiting on her car since last night. Flood rescues are the top priority now in Texas as rain from Hurricane Harvey continues to pour down.

Houston's mayor says more than 2,100 people have been rescued from high water, some even by Coast Guard helicopter. But countless more have been saved by private individuals using jet skis, paddles, even canoes.

Rescued families carrying what little they can with their most precious valuables in plastic bags.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: How much water is in your house?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Seven feet maybe.

TODD: This comparison by "The New York Times" shows how deep the water is just west of downtown Houston. On the left is a normal day, and on the right is the flooding now. Flooding will only worsen in the coming days, forecasters say.

About 25 inches more rain could fall in addition to about 25 inches that has already come down. More than 6,000 victims have already been evacuated to centers in Houston and Friendswood, and authorities are bracing for that to reach up to 30,000 as flooding worsens under the continuing rain.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: We're going to have to leave because it's just too much water.

TODD: Overnight, authorities made an excruciating choice, intentionally releasing water from two dams in West Houston because they're so full.

SYLVESTER TURNER, MAYOR OF HOUSTON, TEXAS: If they don't do it, let's say they hold back the water, and it builds up, then it will go be forced, it will go around Addicks and the situation would be exponentially worse.

TODD: But that means even more floodwaters will hit neighborhoods downstream. Residents downstream forced to evacuate even though their streets aren't not flooded yet.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: They're giving us until -- not time to tardy up, so we're out.


TODD: I just corresponded a few minutes ago with Seth Roberts, the gentleman who led that small rescue team we were with. He told me he estimates he has rescued 200 people today. But and the other rescuers are facing a challenge in the coming hours.

We are just a couple of hours away from nightfall. And, again, it gets pitch black out in those neighborhoods. There are going to be a lot of people waiting possibly on their rooftops, maybe on their cars, Jim, outside some of these houses. It's going to be another very harrowing night in the Houston area -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: We are told of thousands more still awaiting rescue in darkened homes. Brian Todd, thanks very much.

Now let's move closer to the Gulf coast in Dickinson, Texas.

That's where CNN's Ed Lavandera has been. Ed, you have been embedded with National Guard troops doing some of

these rescues. Are they going to continue rescues overnight?

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is our understanding. We have been with them throughout most of the day. Just jumped off. The soldiers that we were with were doing a shift until 8:00 tonight and then another shift was picking up. And all of that still desperately needed. They're really kind of going through a lot of these neighborhoods.

What is fascinating here, Jim, is even though it has rained quite a bit throughout the day today, this is one of those neighborhoods that was heavily washed out and flooded overnight. The water has dropped down a little bit where some cars have been able to -- are able to get through. So you get that sense that they're trying to quickly move out as much as they can, get as many people out as they can.

The good news has been as we have talked to people on boats and trying to look around for people, over the course of the last 24 hours, so many people have been moved that a lot of these neighborhoods, they believe, are fully empty. But that search and rescue still continues throughout. We see various helicopters still flying over the area.

We are here in South Houston. Those efforts continue because, as you mention, that rain, even though it's been falling throughout the day, many people really kind of coming to terms with the fact that they were stranded in their homes and they realized this is going to be lasting several more days.

So, they wanted to get out, moving people to shelters, and that sort of thing. It was fascinating on one of our trips, Jim, with a family that was evacuated a short while ago from an apartment complex. It was really their first glimpse. They had been kind of stranded in their home the last couple days. It was their first glimpse to get out on the streets. When they started seeing the floodwaters that were in the immediate area around them and just a little bit further out, inside the truck that we were in was an overwhelming sense of disbelief.

They had been seeing some pictures here and there about the flooding situation, but nothing really specifically in their neighborhood. And it really then started sinking in for them quite clearly as they were being shuffled and moved out of their own neighborhood -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: For our viewers who are watching now, Eddie Lavandera there, there is no doubt as to the extent and the danger of these waters. You have been watching live pictures throughout there of more rescues under way.

Keep in mind, you see some people there in uniforms, first-responders. They're carrying out rescues. You see people in clothes, casual clothes. They're people just like you and me, citizen soldiers, you might say, who are coming to the help, to the aid of neighbors. It's been happening all day and it continues to happen .

I want to go now to another hard-hit area, Richmond, Texas. That's where CNN's Polo Sandoval is tonight.

Polo, tell us what you're seeing there now.

POLO SANDOVAL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, authorities here are concerned be that the next major flooding to happen around the Houston area will happen in Fort Bend County, not far from Houston.

I'll tell you why. The Brazos River flows about 100 yards away from where I'm standing now. You wouldn't be able to see it. Instead, though, you can see this water is actually coming from that river, it's slowly creeping onto people's back yards and homes.

The man who owns this house, Jim, told me when the Brazos reached a record level of about 54 feet, the water line was up to here. In the next 12 hours, however, the forecast now calling it to go up to 59 feet.


The county judge here in Fort Bend is extremely worried that the levees meant to keep this floodwater away from homes will not hold.

SCIUTTO: Polo Sandoval there. That's a real problem going forward. Long after the rain falls, the rivers continue to rise and the levees, they were built high, but not high enough for this water.

I want to go back to Houston, the unfolding disaster there.

We're joined now by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee. She represents a large swathe of the city.

Congresswoman Lee, thank you for taking the time. We know you have a lot on your plate.

I want to ask you, if I can, by beginning, do you have a sense of the numbers, how many people in Houston are still in need of rescue?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Well, I can tell you, at the George R. Brown Convention Center, there is an unceasing number of people coming in.

Our first-responders, police and firefighters, the Coast Guard and the Texas National Guard and many, many others have done a great job. But I believe there are many numbers of individuals still needing rescuing and primarily because we have an older population that may be in their homes, as you have noted, some people on their cars, some neighborhoods because we are so large geographically, that people are not able to get to as much as they have tried.

And then, yes, our neighborhoods are rich with people, but they are dark at night and, therefore, it is difficult to work at night. And there may be many people. I am still believing that we should be in a constant rescue mode until the city is dry. As we were trying to rescue people today in a very heavily flooded area in Cavalcade and Lockheed, firefighters and police were telling us and citizens were telling us there were people are in their homes, senior citizens, that need rescuing.

SCIUTTO: We spoke with your colleague Congressman Al Green, represents another part of the city there. He said it was his estimate as many as 10,000 people still in need of rescue just in the one part of town that he had been touring. Is it possible that there are many thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of Houston residents who are stuck in their homes tonight as the flood levels rise?

LEE: Well, the city is 2.3 million. The county is between four and six million. It is certainly a possibility that there is even more.

But I believe that we should focus on one rescue at a time. The good news is 12,000 Texas National Guard will be on the ground -- are on the ground today. That's what I believe we needed all along. And if we can get the intensity of those military personnel working alongside our firefighters, EMS and our police, and going over every corner of this community, we will get those that need rescuing.

Right now, I feel that I have left seniors in their homes. I understand people who are sickly in their homes. Stroke victims in their homes. It's not easy for them to communicate, to come outside and stand out on the front steps. And, so, I believe we still have a vast number of people that we need to rescue.

Now, let me say this. At the same time, we have a massive volunteer team of people with their own boats. I have a constituent who traveled to Dallas to buy a boat so that he could contribute to this effort. If we get the volunteer effort and we continue to work with this massive infusion of Texas National Guard, we can get it done.

And then we have to be able to provide for these people. And what I'm looking forward to, there are a couple days we will be back in Washington, if I'm able to go. But I'm intending to introduce an aid bill so that these constituents don't have to wait one minute, and that's going to be the marathon that we're going to need to go and be successful.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this. Houston area, of course, has a number of hospitals, some of the best hospitals in the country. We saw that some had begun to be evacuated. That, of course, was a major issue in New Orleans with Katrina, was getting people out of hospitals. Are there hospitals now that are facing a crisis getting patients out to safety?

LEE: I think we have stabilized that.

Our major public hospital had concerns, Ben Taub. They sent us a notice yesterday that they were fine and they were sheltering in place and had the food. Another public hospital, Lyndon Baines Johnson, was full, but they had the ability and capacity to take care of their patients and didn't have to evacuate.

Saint Joseph's Hospital, which is in -- all of these are in my congressional district, either on the edge. Saint Joseph Hospital that has become the go-to hospital for our first-responders is still open. They were taking on water last night. But, fortunately, they were sandbagging it and they were surviving.


So, I think we have stabilized. The Texas Medical Center is working. Some of our far lying hospitals had to evacuate, but they evacuated into the system they have. We still have a system that works. Right here at the George R. Brown Convention Center, we have a full staff of doctors with the ability to prescribe and take care of patients or transfer them out to the hospital.

We really, I think, on the preparedness side, really are working in a full throttle.

SCIUTTO: And we're watching live pictures of those rescues still under way as we speak to you, Congresswoman. Before I let you go, you remember after Hurricane Sandy struck the Northeast that an aid package was rejected by Congress, including voted against by some members of the Texas delegation.

LEE: Right.

SCIUTTO: Are you confident that this time the money that Texas needs will be passed by Congress?

LEE: Let me say that I was right there with my friends on the Northeast with Hurricane Sandy.

I was so disappointed that we would treat people who had been so devastated in that manner. I don't view this as a threat. I view it as a challenge. This is a incident that no one has ever seen. It is more than catastrophic. There are no words to speak.

We he had an ocean yesterday, and we are continuing in that ocean. This is a statement about America, and whether we will build infrastructure and housing and we will restore people's lives. I believe the speaker and certainly my Democratic leadership that has called me already to move an aid package, I think the real question is, is the president of the United States has to be part of that leadership with a commitment not to shut this government down.

I expect a bipartisan vote on restoring this swathe of devastation that is not finishing today, it's continuing. It's going to be Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. We don't know how much more damage we're going to face. Right now, city hall is underwater. We haven't had that vast impact in jurisdictions for a long time.

I know there were many that experienced it, but they were able to recover and get back on their feet, at least even though it took a long time. We're not even able to be at the recovery stage because we're still in the rescue hurricane stage. It is still raining. I think the Hurricane Harvey rain package is going to have to succeed if America is going to be what America is.

And that is a place that rescues people and restores people. That's my challenge to the United States Congress, is to work together in unity to make this work. SCIUTTO: You have heard the forecast that another 25 inches of rain

is coming to your city. What's your biggest concern?

LEE: That we won't get the people out. We can fix the buildings and homes. I don't want to see any loss of life, any more loss of life, or any expanded loss of life.

We lost people down in Rockport and other places. I want to make sure that we can save lives. People who are there now, I want to make sure that we can get to them. A lady just stopped me whose grandmother is in another location. A gentlemen just stopped me and said his sister- in-law with children is in another location. We have got to get them out.

Once we get them out, we can make them safe, if you will. We can ensure that they have clothing, medical care. A lot of them need medical care. So, my greatest fear is the human element, not the property element, because there is going to be a massive loss in property damage because houses are being damaged across the economic spectrum.

But what I want to do is to make sure that we save lives. That's what we're trying to do. That's what the volunteers are trying to do. That's why we have got this shelter. That's why we have called in General Nichols, let me thank you, of the Texas National Guard.

That's why we have called in all of the Texas National Guard working with all of the leaders across the state. That's what our focus has to be, saving lives.

SCIUTTO: That's right. Homes can be rebuilt.

Congresswoman Lee, we are thinking of your state. We're rooting for it and we wish you the best. We know you have a lot of hard work to do.

LEE: We thank you.

And if I might, for those who are looking, we're in this vast place with people with a lot of need. And if you're in the area that can get to us, if you're in the region and you're dry, one, would you please help others by housing them and providing them a safe place? Would you provide us with clothing and towels and baby formula and food?


We still need it. And we'd welcome your donations. Thank you so very much.

SCIUTTO: We will make sure to share that information.

Thank you, Congresswoman. You heard it there from Sheila Jackson Lee.

LEE: Thank you for having me.

SCIUTTO: Baby formula, food, clothing, towels.

CNN -- on the CNN Web site as well, there is information about how you can Impact Your World and help with the recovery efforts for Hurricane Harvey.

Just ahead, there is more breaking news. Record rainfall brings catastrophic flooding in Houston, other areas of Southeast Texas as well. The rain totals could double in the days ahead. Is the worst yet to come? We will get the latest forecast.

And more breaking news, another launch by North Korea. A short time ago, the Pentagon confirming that Kim Jong-un's regime has fired a missile which flew right over Japan. We're going to go live to North Korea.



SCIUTTO: We're back now with more breaking news, coverage of the catastrophic flooding in Texas, the disaster now blamed for seven deaths, with search-and-rescue operations still ongoing.

We have gotten estimates of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands still trapped in their homes. Officials warning that the crisis in East Texas that is spreading into Louisiana may only get worse in the days ahead.


SCIUTTO: I want to go back to Houston now.

That's where city officials certainly struggling to deal with this unprecedented disaster.

We're joined by Houston City Council Member at Large Amanda Edwards.

Ms. Edwards, thanks very much for joining us tonight. We know you have got a lot on your plate.

We're trying to figure out if Houston knows how many people are still trapped in their homes. We had the estimate from one congressman, Al Green, who represents one district there. He said he thought just -- 10,000 people just in the neighborhoods he was visiting. Do you have a sense of how many people still are in need of rescue?

AMANDA EDWARDS, HOUSTON CITY COUNCIL MEMBER AT LARGE: There is -- it's very difficult for us to tell at this particular moment in time how many people are still in need of rescue.

What we can say is as of yesterday we had 56,000 calls to 911 and we are still returning -- going out in the community, rescuing people and trying to get them into shelters. Currently, I'm at the George R. Brown Convention Center, which is a large shelter, emergency shelter, that we have in downtown Houston. And so we're trying to get people access to the resources that they need -- 911 has been a resource, and we obviously have been utilizing that, but we have got a lot of folks coming in to also help and support us. We have got a lot of partnerships and support from outside the city as well.

SCIUTTO: So, what do you need most, then, to get a handle on exactly how many people are still in need of rescue, but then, of course, to get to them, to get them to safety?


So, we have been assessing what are the safe routes for people to travel right now. A lot of our highways are underwater. A lot of our roadways are underwater. And so unless we -- unless you consider it to be an emergency circumstance, we are not encouraging people to get on the roadways. Those calls are going to continue to roll in.

And so predicting how many calls are still left to come is very difficult at this particular moment in time. But what we are trying to do is make sure we are clear making sure that people have clear information, clear messaging about where those temporary shelters lie, where there are more longer-term shelters, and what kind of support they can get.

Right here at George R. Brown Convention Center, for example. We have one at M.O. Campbell, where we have Red Cross, who has been diligent in making sure we have resources.

And we're asking people to also make donations, donations both in terms of financial donations, but also in terms of goods, things that people need, warm clothing, shoes, socks, also additional supplies, baby diapers, and just a number of things that you would expect to have left behind if you leaving your house in a hurry or in an emergency situation.

[18:30:20] SCIUTTO: No question. Important all around.

We know that Houston is forecast to get some 20 inches more rain this week. We keep hearing from our meteorologists that the storm is getting stronger as it moves out over the ocean. What is your biggest concern over the next several days?

EDWARDS: Our concern is that people will not stay in their homes if they're not -- will think that they can venture out of their homes and try to drive around the city, do things like try to go to a store to get extra supplies, extra things that they might need around the house.

The problem with that is sometimes you don't know where some of the dips are in the roadways, particularly if you're taking a road that's unfamiliar to you. And, so, our challenge is getting people to stay put for as long as they've had to stay put.

People started getting -- hunkering down, if you will, as of Friday. And, so, there are a lot of people who want to go and buy some extra supplies, extra water, extra Gatorade, whatever they're buying. But the challenge is getting them to stay put if they're not in an emergency situation.

And of course, we do have Houstonians who are facing emergencies as we speak. We are fielding those calls. We are working diligently. And we are appreciative of all the people who are helping to volunteer once we get people into shelters, such as these.

SCIUTTO: So, for some people, obviously, it's not a matter of whether they can drive out of their house. They're stuck in homes now that have been flooded.


SCIUTTO: Nighttime is coming. We know that the civilian rescuers who have been operating, there have been so many of them; it's really been one of the most heartening parts of this story. But it's been recommended to them not to be on the water after nightfall. What's going to happen overnight? The rain is still falling. You still have people trapped in their homes. What's going to happen to them?

EDWARDS: We're going to continue to operate the rescue missions as need be, but we're asking people, please, if you believe that the water is too high in your home, if you believe that you need shelter, it's not safe, you believe it's something that you need to escape from, to go ahead and do that now when it's still daylight out.

We do not want to have people venturing out in the dark on their own. That is the last thing we want to have happen. I was with the Houston Fire Department today. We were passing by roadways, scouting safer paths and even in doing so saw manholes that were uncovered because of the water being -- pushing them up.

And so, understanding that, even though you may think you know a particular route, in this circumstance you may not know it because of the conditions due to the rainfall and flooding.

SCIUTTO: Amanda Edwards and the Houston city council, we're going to keep on this story. We wish you the best of luck. We know you've got a lot of hard work.

EDWARDS: Thank you. I appreciate.

And can I make one plug, asking people if they're interested in helping, please to go online to Also, the greater Houston Community Foundation is -- has a hurricane fund relief set up by the mayor of the city of Houston, Mayor Sylvester Turner. We're asking for people to also, if they're looking to donate, also looking at that foundation as a resource for donation, as well, as the Red Cross, as well.

SCIUTTO: You heard that there, the Red Cross and the Greater Houston Community Foundation. Thanks very much, Amanda Edwards.

And more breaking news. Right now, another major story we've been following this hour, the Pentagon now confirming that North Korea has fired a missile which flew over Japan.

I want to go live now to Pyongyang. That's where CNN's Will Ripley is the only western reporter inside North Korea. We're getting some details now, Will Ripley. This missile flew some 1,600 miles at an altitude of 300 miles straight over U.S. ally Japan. Certainly, a threatening act by North Korea.

WILL RIPLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is, Jim. And we also know, we just learned that this missile was launched from the Pyongyang Sunan Airport. That is the airport that we flew into, that all the commercial flights into Pyongyang fly into. We flew in just a couple of days ago. So they actually launched a missile from the vicinity of their airport that they use for commercial purposes but also, obviously, for military purposes, as well. Very close to the hotel where we are reporting from at this hour.

We know that the missile, as you said, flew over northern Japan, the Hokkaido region. Residents in that area received an alert telling them to take cover. This is a system that Japan has put in place after previous North Korean launches came very close to Hokkaido. Some smaller communities have even conducted North Korean missile drills, which gives you a sense of the fear in this region.

But this launch, as provocative as it is, and it is the most provocative since the two previous times that North Korean missiles flew over Japan, once a failed satellite launch attempt in 2009, and before that, 1998 when North Korea launched a satellite, its first satellite into orbit.

[18:35:08] So, this is -- this is the most provocative launch that North Korea has conducted in a number of years, but this was a test. We don't believe there was a warhead on this missile. The missile flew over Hokkaido. It landed in the waters off Japan after breaking into three pieces.

So this is a demonstration by North Korea, a very clear message to the United States and the Trump administration after weeks of fiery rhetoric, but it is one of dozens and dozens of missile tests that North Korea's leader, Kim Jong-un, has ordered.

Also noteworthy to mention, Jim, South Korea's national intelligence service briefed lawmakers yesterday. They do -- they have seen activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear site that could indicate possible, possible preparations for a 6th nuclear test.

SCIUTTO: That would be yet one more provocation. Will Ripley inside North Korea.

And just ahead, much more of our breaking news. We're going to go to our reporters in Texas, in the Texas disaster zone, amid urgent efforts to rescue people trapped by the rising flood waters as night falls. And President Trump traveling to Texas tomorrow, vowing federal help for the stricken region.


TRUMP: We are one family. To the people of Texas and Louisiana, we are 100 percent with you.



[18:41:00] SCIUTTO: Breaking tonight, we're following live water rescues underway in and around Houston. Harvey unleashing yet more rain, more flooding, more misery, days after making land fall as a Category 4 hurricane.

Tonight President Trump promising support for flood victims as he prepares to visit Texas tomorrow. In the midst of this major disaster, he seemed eager to take questions on some other subjects, as well, including his controversial pardon of former Arizona sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

Let's bring in CNN senior White House correspondent Jeff Zeleny.

Jeff, we heard from the president a short while ago, and he had lots of comments on a number of things.

JEFF ZELENY, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Good evening, Jim. He certainly did. And he was standing in the East Room of the White House, striking a more unifying, conciliatory tone than we've heard from him in quite some time, talking about the first natural disaster of his presidency, saying we're all Americans, we struggle together, we hurt together.

And in the same breath, the next breath, rather, he talked about one of the most divisive decisions he's made, that controversial pardon of Sheriff Joe Arpaio.


ZELENY (voice-over): President Trump today pledging his administration's full support to those affected by the massive devastation in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

TRUMP: We are one American family. We hurt together. We struggle together. And believe me, we endure together. We are one family. To the people of Texas and Louisiana, we are 100 percent with you.

ZELENY: The president is traveling to Texas on Tuesday to get a first-hand look at the damage. Speaking alongside the Finnish president in the East Room of the White House, Mr. Trump said he'll ask Congress for emergency funds to help the state recover.

TRUMP: I think that you're going to see very rapid action from Congress, certainly from the president, and you're going to get your funding. It's a terrible tragedy.

We expect to have requests on our desk fairly soon, and we think that Congress will feel very much the way I feel. In a very bipartisan way -- that will be nice -- but we think you're going to have what you need, and it's going to go fast. ZELENY: The first major natural disaster of his presidency is still

unfolding by the hour, creating a careful balancing act for how he and his administration responds.

TRUMP: It's the biggest ever. They're saying it's the biggest; it's historic. It's like, really like Texas, if you think about it. But it is a historic amount of water in particular. There's never been anything like it.

ZELENY: Yet he plans to steer clear of Houston, the nation's fourth largest city, swamped by historic floods, to avoid complicating recovery efforts.

The images of the water rescues evoked memories of Hurricane Katrina. The president intent on sending a message that his administration is on top of the catastrophe.

All this as the White House contends with the fallout from the president's pardoning of former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He announced the move on Twitter only hours before Hurricane Harvey made land fall. A spokesman for Speaker Paul Ryan said, "The speaker does not agree with this decision." Several other Republicans and most Democrats also blasted the move.

Despite the criticism, the president saying today he has no second thoughts for his decision, including the timing of the announcement.

TRUMP: In the middle of a hurricane, even though it was a Friday evening, I assumed the ratings would be far higher than they would be normally.

Sheriff Joe is a patriot. Sheriff Joe loves our country. Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration, especially right before an election, an election that he would have won. So -- and he was elected many times.

So, I stand by my pardon of Sheriff Joe. And I think the people of Arizona who really know him best would agree with me.

ZELENY: The president also not backing down from his threat to potentially shut down the government if Congress doesn't approve funding for a wall along the U.S. border with Mexico.

TRUMP: I hope that's not necessary. If it's necessary, we'll have to see, but I hope it's not necessary. The wall is needed from the standpoint of security.


ZELENY: So the president saying he hopes it's not necessary to shut down the government over the wall, that wall on the southern border, but did not rule that out.

He also said that he will ask Congress for emergency funding. We're talking in the multibillions of dollars here, Jim. He said that that would go forward smoothly, perhaps overlooking some of the history of many of these other bills that have been actually much more complicated to pass, like Hurricane Sandy, for example. He said there would be no government shut down over that. It's a separate issue.

But in fact, Jim, when Congress comes back to Washington next week, they have all of this to contend with. And this funding bill will be part of the entire spending bill that could lead to a government shut down if they don't agree -- Jim.

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN HOST: Jeff Zeleny, thanks very much at the White House.

Let's go to our panel now.

Kaitlan Collins, I mean, this is shaping up to be, this crisis, an enormous test of the Trump presidency. And I think we've been discussing for sometime there will be a crisis of some sort, whenever it comes. Of course, there have been other issues, whether it'd be terrorism or North Korea. But we spoke to Congress -- two representatives who said there could be thousands, perhaps tens of thousands still trapped, which means that, you know, you have many more people impacted.

What is President Trump's response so far, in your view?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Well, I think that they're trying to be incredibly (AUDIO GAP) tweeting about it. We saw Vice President Mike Pence doing a lot of interviews with local radio stations in Texas today. So, I think they are trying to learn from the Bush administration mistakes with Hurricane Katrina, by being on top of this, and having his FEMA administrator. I think the president is pretty thankful that that's one person he does have confirmed and that he did pick someone who was pretty well backed up.

But we'll see what happens when the president goes to Texas tomorrow. As you know, just last August, he famously criticized Barack Obama for being on vacation in Martha's Vineyard when floods were pounding Louisiana. And he said that he wasn't going. He was playing golf.

But really Barack Obama was saying he wasn't going because it would be too early. He didn't want to disrupt the recovery efforts that were happening there. So, I think people will be watching to see what happens when the president and the first lady travel there tomorrow.

SCIUTTO: And also, you know, are the resources there to rescue the people who are in need?

Manu, you cover the Hill. You know the Hill well. The president made a promised today, said listen, we're going to get the money through. It's going to be bipartisan. But he also said he's going to stand by his shut down threat over the wall.

I mean, how do you rectify those two?

MANU RAJU, CNN SENIOR CONGRESSIONAL REPORTER: It's not going to be that easy because one reason why emergency funding has been more of a challenge than has recently is because a lot of conservatives want to see spending cuts to offset the spending, which is why that Sandy relief package was voted against by a number of senators, a number of congressman, too, and senators from the Texas delegation, including Ted Cruz. The question is do they insist on a spending package for what happened in Texas that would include these offsets, because it's very difficult to agree on spending cuts as we know. So, that's one issue.

And it's very possible that this gets wrapped into the negotiations to keep the government open past September 30th. And I can tell you, almost certainly, the funding bill -- funding for the wall will not get approved in the United States Senate. The Democrats are almost universally opposed to this. A lot of Republicans opposed to it.

So, what does the president do? A lot of Republicans think he will back down, but if he doesn't, then we can have a stand-off, but we'll see. He may be forced to back down given the situation in Texas.

SCIUTTO: He'd be putting the wall up against the suffering that we're seeing on the air right here now after that very public promise.

In the midst of this, of course, on Friday, the president announces his reprieve, his pardon for Joe Arpaio. It was interesting, asked about it tonight, David, the president could have said, well, it was an important decision to make. Disconnected, in effect, from Hurricane Harvey, but he connected it. He said, in fact, I thought the ratings would be high.

So, I announced it on Friday on purpose, in effect.

DAVID SWERDLICK, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Yes, almost trying to spin away from the narrative that started to build on Friday night, that this was a big Friday night news dump. That he was saying, no, in fact, I knew people would be tuned into TV to see coverage so that's when I wanted to announce it.

Either way you slice it, Jim, I think it's tone deaf in this sense. The focus of the president, any president should be putting on a disaster of this magnitude is the disaster itself. The Arpaio pardon, we could have a whole separate discussion about that.

But whatever it is, it didn't have to happen on Friday evening. It could have been done any other day. It's not like Joe Arpaio was being sent to jail on Monday morning. So, I think --

RAJU: He hasn't been sentenced yet.

SWERDLICK: Yes, he hasn't been sentenced. So, I think it's tone deaf and speaks poorly of the way the president handled it.

SCIUTTO: Kaitlan, this decision, you had seen Republican opposition to this president on other moves in the past, but this one seemed to get a bit more public opposition, not just from sitting lawmakers and from, for instance, analysts on FOX News or the D.C. Examiner, "The Washington Examiner".

[18:50:04] How significant is it that this got more pushback among the president's various, at times, controversial decisions than previous ones? Is that significant? Does it matter to this president?

COLLINS: It is significant because not only was it just random analyst on FOX News. It was House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senator John McCain, who is from Arizona. And today when the president was saying why he pardoned him and that he expected it to get great ratings on a Friday night, he said the people of Arizona love Joe Arpaio, which is not true. He's a very controversial figure.

Whenever the president was going to Phoenix to hold his rally, the mayor of Phoenix asked the president not to pardon him there that night because he didn't want it to inflame passions after the violence in Charlottesville. But going back to that, it absolutely was him trying to bury it on a Friday night. It happened after 6:00 p.m.

It also happened when he sent his directive to the Pentagon to carry out his transgender ban in the military and with the ouster of the very controversial adviser, Sebastian Gorka. All this happened on a Friday, after 6:00, as a hurricane was barreling towards Texas and the president just tried to spin it today and say that it wasn't part of a Friday news dump. But I think that's the only way you can really spin that.

RAJU: You know one person we have not heard from, Jim? Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader. He's been silent on this so far.

SCIUTTO: And the president will need him for a spending package.

Kaitlan, Manu, David Swerdlick, thanks very much.

Just ahead, more breaking news coverage of the flooding and rescue operation in Texas, all this after a quick break.


[18:56:09] SCIUTTO: Breaking tonight, the mayor of Houston now estimates that some 8,000 people are in shelter. The number increasing as more flood victims are forced from their homes. The Hurricane Harvey disaster expanding with more pounding rains in the forecast overnight. The president and Mrs. Trump are heading to Texas tomorrow.

In the midst of a busy news day, other news on the Russia investigation coming out. "The New York Times" reporting that a long- time associate of President Trump feel like, Sater believes, that developing a Trump Tower in Moscow would earn the support Vladimir Putin, potentially aiding his campaign effort.

In a 2015 e-mail, very quotable here, Sater wrote to Michael Cohen, Trump's personal lawyer, the following, quote: Our boy can become president of the USA and we can engineer it. I will get all of Putin's team to buy in on this. I will manage the process.

Manu Raju, quite a quote there in that. Sater has been known to exaggerate his influence, but how significant is this? RAJU: You know, I think a lot of this undercuts what the Trump campaign, the president himself has been saying that there were no business dealings whatsoever with anybody in Russia. They were very categorical about it. Not just that, but we've learned also that President Trump, top attorney, Michael Cohen, did speak, tried to reach out to one of Vladimir Putin's top right-hand man in Russia, on one occasion, try to reach out about this Trump Tower project that had essentially stalled.

And we now know that from our own reporting, that there was an e-mail turned over to Congress showing that one of President Trump's top aides had been reached out to by a man from West Virginia to discuss a meeting between Russians and the Trump campaign about, quote, shared Christian values which some folks believe in the intelligence world could be an effort to try to, by Russians, to try to find inroads into the Trump campaign. We don't know if that's the case yet. But it really just all underscores that this investigation is still ongoing, a lot of questions remaining and investigators on the Hill are going through tons of e-mails that could lead to more leaks.

SCIUTTO: But, remember, the denials from the Trump team throughout had been not just no business dealings but no communications. And both -- I mean, certainly the communications has been repeatedly belied by the facts and the emails.

Kaitlan, how does the president maintain this, as the revelations from the congressional investigation and, of course, Mueller underway, as well, belie his denials throughout?

COLLINS: Right. How does he maintain that? And he said he has no contact, no business dealings, but we're really seeing what the state of mind of his associates was here, that it was a political advantage for them to be in contact with Donald Trump and with them, and it doesn't take a genius to figure out that a lawyer who is representing someone who is running for president should not be contacting a hostile foreign government to seek favor in a case like this.

SCIUTTO: The other relation, CNN confirming that Michael Cohen, Trump's lawyer, David Swerdlick, also spoke to Trump about the Trump Tower in Moscow some three times. So, there's not -- he cannot claim to have no knowledge of what was being discussed.

SWERDLICK: Right. Based on that reporting, he can claim that there's no knowledge. And again, we're not talking about minor figures either on the Trump side of the equation or the Russian side of the equation. Michael Cohen is a long-time Trump Organization lawyer, Dmitry Peskov is a senior Russian official.

So, again, this doesn't mean that any Russian interference in the election was a quid pro quo for anything. We're a long way from connecting dots like that, but it suggests that the president's narrative about nothing to see here, nothing was said, nothing was communicated, no Trump Tower, that didn't happen.

SCIUTTO: "New York Times" reported, CNN did, a number of months ago, that there was repeated contacts at a high level between Russians and members of the Trump campaign, denied at the time. The facts have shown that reporting to be true.

David, Manu, Kaitlan, thanks very much as always.

I'm Jim Sciutto. Thanks very much for watching.

CNN's special breaking news coverage of the flooding in Texas continues tonight. We're hearing harrowing stories as night falls in the flooded areas.

We turn you over right now to "ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT".