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Massive Fire At Texas Chemical Plant; Category 3 Hurricane Irma Intensifying, May Hit U.S.; Houston Now Soaking In A Chemical Stew Filled With E.Coli; NYT: Mueller Has Draft of Letter Trump Wrote Explaining Comey Firing; Source: Longtime Trump Aide Leaving White House, Frustrated with Kelly's System. Aired on 7-8p ET

Aired September 1, 2017 - 19:00   ET


ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: A dangerous new Category 3 hurricane in the meantime gaining strength at this hour. Is it headed for the U.S. and the Gulf Coast?

Plus an OutFront exclusive report this hour, the first test results just in of Harvey's toxic floodwaters. These results are shocking. You'll see them only here.

Plus, another long-time confidant to the President, one of the people closest to Trump for decades and in the White House out tonight. Is it because of John Kelly? Let's go OutFront.

Good evening. I'm Erin Burnett. OutFront tonight, the breaking news you see on your screen, a raging inferno. Moments ago, fire and thick black smoke breaking out at this chemical plant. It is in Crosby, Texas. Crosby is in hard hit Harris County. It is, of course, the same county as Houston. It's about 25 miles east of downtown.

That same plant was hit by a fire and explosion on Thursday after floods knocked out power supplies that are needed to run the refrigerators that actually can cool some of these volatile chemicals. Plant official stress the smoke was not a serious danger to people yesterday, but locals were evacuated for one-and-a-half miles around the plant.

The fire that you're looking at right now, as you see that black smoke, it is much bigger, it is much more intense. And we're going to have much more on that in a moment.

We are also following the breaking news on a new major hurricane tonight, hurricane Irma, a major Category 3 storm right now and it's going to get a lot bigger. It's intensifying as it moves across the Atlantic. The satellite picture that you see below me captures both Irma and what remains of Harvey over Tennessee earlier today. So you can see them on either side of your screen.

Forecaster say Irma has the potential to hit the mainland as a major storm, possibly bigger and stronger than Harvey. Right now, computer model show Irma could make land fall in Florida or further up the East Coast or even crossing the gulf and plowing into the disaster left behind by Harvey. Many storm paths, all of them, terrifying. We'll begin OutFront tonight with Miguel Marquez in Belmont, Texas. He joins me on the phone, obviously, still issues with communications with the catastrophe there. Miguel, the fire growing in intensity over the past hour in Crosby. What do we know about this plant and the explosion? I mean, this smoke is -- this isn't just regular chimney smoke, this is black, thick noxious looking stuff.

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Yeah. There is 500,000 pounds of organic peroxide in this Arkema plant, Northeast of Houston, in Crosby, Texas. As you noted yesterday, there was an issue where it did (ph) first into part of the plant first burst into flames.

15 deputies of Harris County were in the plant at the time. They had to be treated at the hospital. It causes an irritant. They were not badly injured, but the plant, Arkema, out of an abundance of caution has instituted a one-and-a-half mile exclusion zone around the plant.

This is a plant that suffered six feet of water was in that plant. It's not the water that has set off these chemicals. It's the lack of refrigeration as you noted that the power went out in the plant and this is something that authorities at the plant and officials at the plant thought would happen in the days ahead. They knew that this was a very likely event that would happen, and it is happening. The Chemical Safety Board has started an investigation into the first explosion, and this one is being watched very carefully as well.

It is not clear how long this will burn or if it will spread to other areas of the plant. But this is why they have this explosion zone now, this one-and-a-half mile zone around the plant, in the event that it is a catastrophic situation.

This is the petrochemical oil gas, petrochemical area of the country. There are many, many of these plants in this storm and the issues raised not only with the flooding, but with the power and everything that comes with these storms is being looked at by many, many agencies right now that the Environmental Protection Agency watching very carefully what's happening here.

But this, unfortunately, is oftentimes what happens in this sort of major disasters where you have water rising over many, many days and it can be a slow, sort of unfolding disaster. This may be just one of many days that we see of this. Erin?

BURNETT: All right. Miguel, thank you very much. As we get more, we'll go back to Miguel here on the scene.

I want to go now to one of the top officials in Harris County, of course, that includes Houston, it includes the fire at the plant you're looking at right now in Crosby. Sheriff Ed Gonzales is back with me.

And, Sheriff, let me just get to the breaking news here. Obviously, we see that black, thick smoke coming from that chemical plant in Crosby. There was a fire yesterday. This one, of course, as we're reporting is much bigger than that one. You have crews there. What is causing this? Do you know? What exploded?

[19:05:00] SHERIFF ED GONZALEZ, HARRIS COUNTY, TEXAS: Well, we have nine containers there, boxed containers there that contain this organic peroxide and we knew that as the temperature continued to change and drop that eventually we would have these ruptures. We experienced the first one yesterday. I believe this is now the second one and we frankly anticipate a few more, at least seven, because there are still seven box containers left. And as you mentioned, that's why we have that exclusion zone for a mile and a half now.

BURNETT: So seven more. I mean, look, the smoke does look -- look, it's foul. It's black. It's noxious. I know 15 of your deputies, sheriff deputies were taken to the hospital for inhaling the irritants after that first explosion that you mentioned. How are they tonight? How are these officers doing?

GONZALEZ: They were fine. Fortunately, thank God, they were released later that morning. And, so, we're happy that they're doing well. And, you know, we're still continuing to monitor the situation. We're working very closely with our fire professionals that are near the scene and assessing everything and we have all the top experts trying to determine, you know, what our next steps if any that we need to do.

We were taking a defensive posture and just allowing these containers to burn. We thought that that would be the best option contain at there on scene and that's what we're proceeding to do at the moment. Again, ours is more of a public safety police function that we have --


GONZALEZ: -- and just regarding the general area and the fire professionals were handling the fire and the chemical issue.

BURNETT: So when you talk about public safety, though, obviously these are chemicals. These are massive chemical plant that the fire is black and thick and it looks noxious. And Arkema executive from that plant was actually asked about that smoke and whether the smoke is toxic. The answer was certainly not one to be proud of from a public relations perspective. I just want to play it, though, to get your response to the facts, the allegations here. Let me play it.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Nontoxic or can you not say that?

RICHARD RENARD, ARKEMA EXECUTIVE: It's noxious. I mean, toxicity is --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. So you're not able to say that it's none to any of this is nontoxic?

RENARD: I mean, toxicity is a --

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: OK. So you can't say it? Are you going say they're nontoxic or not? Yes or no? I think it's a pretty important -- RENARD: I mean the smoke is noxious. Its toxicity is, you know, it's a relative thing.


BURNETT: Using a scientific distinction here, but a distinction without a difference to the public, certainly Sheriff, that you are trying to protect. Are you concerned about what's going into the air right now?

GONZALEZ: Well, I mean, there's always a concern. And the images obviously are very troubling. So, you know, that is a concern. But I feel confident in talking to the fire marshal, our Harris County Fire Marshal Office, since Chief Bolton is there. Trust him a great deal. He's very experienced.

And they've been in communications and deliberations with the Arkema from the beginning on this when they alerted us about the situation. And so I have to go with what our fire professionals are saying and we're working closely with them. So I believe if anything changes we will definitely adjust our plans. But not sure, you know, about what Arkema is mentioning up. I can't really speak to their statement.

BURNETT: No, I understand. Sheriff, though, as our reporter pointed out, you're standing at the epicenter of the petrochemical capital of the United States, right? You've got refineries. You've got chemical plants. You've got more (INAUDIBLE) than anywhere else, right? You got oil coming in. You have a lot of old super fund sites. Are you concerned at this point that there could be more massive, toxic fires or leaks?

GONZALEZ: You're correct. We have a lot of critical infrastructure here. We cover over 1,700 square miles. We're the third largest county in the country, so our geography is massive. But beyond this, we have not heard of any other facility that's compromised in any way or any other issues at this point. We have our industrial team with the Harris County Sheriff's Office and other administrative partners and regulators that we communicate with, so we do not have other concerns at this time.

BURNETT: All right. Sheriff Gonzalez, I appreciate your taking the time talking to me again. Thank you, sir.

GONZALEZ: Thank you, Erin.

BURNETT: All right. And joining me on the phone now is Sam Mannan. He's a professor of chemical engineering at Texas A&M. He did a study on all the hazardous materials in the Houston area as we are talking about the petrochemical capital of the U.S. now so much of it underwater, under flooded water. Sam, can you answer, I guess, the crucial question here of how hazardous is this explosion? When you see this black smoke, how concerned are you?

SAM MANNAN, PROFESSOR OF CHEMICAL ENGINEERING, TEXAS A&M UNIVERSITY (via telephone): So I am concerned, but I don't think it is something of the order of magnitude of the west explosion of the scenario, but it is a matter of concern. And the thick black smoke that you see coming out, it primarily contains the product of combustion, which is carbon dioxide and water. But depending on how incomplete the combustion is and the darkness or the blackness of the smoke indicates that there is some incomplete combustion. So because of that, some of the chemicals are getting in the air as it is.

[19:10:05] And my hope is -- and I have to assume that they're getting dispersed properly. But if people get exposed to it over longer periods of time, there can be health effects. Whether or not they're going to be reversible or irreversible health effects, we'd have to dig deeper into it.

BURNETT: Well, let me stand up what I think is really terrifying for people to hear. When you look at this, you think more broadly about other chemicals, perhaps, leaking into the water around Houston. But in this case, right, they've evacuated people within a mile and a half of the chemical plant. That's even as they said don't worry about it. They did evacuate.

You are saying this is going into the air, and it sounds like we just don't know how dangerous it is. Should they have evacuated a broader area or are you confident one-and-a-half miles is enough?

MANNAN: So only time will tell if that's the right decision. But, again, I have to assume that one-and-a-half mile radius was picked on the basis of some calculations that took into account explosion over pressures or shockwaves, as well as the concentrations they might see at that distance after dispersion has taken place. Clearly, there is always an uncertainty with those calculations, but usually people make those determinations on a conservative basis, so you're always on the safe side. And I'm hoping that is the case in this case.

BURNETT: All right.

MANNAN: But it is not something that we should just treat as something we should not be concerned about. Clearly, we should be concerned about it and there are seven other tanks that are there with significant quantities of the material. They will also burn sooner or later. And right now, the plant or anyone else doesn't have any other options but to let it burn and hopefully the consequences will be limited to this type of explosion.

BURNETT: OK, all right. Thank you very much, Sam. I appreciate your time and seven more of those explosions to come at least just there.

And this comes as another hurricane is intensifying over the Atlantic. And right now it's a Category 3, but it's still very far away. It coalesced into a storm incredibly early, it's incredibly strong and it could pose a major threat to the United States. Allison Chinchar is OutFront live in our weather center. And, Allison, we're talking about Irma here. What do you know about it?

ALLISON CHINCHAR, CNN METEOROLOGIST: We know right now it's a very strong hurricane as it stands. But it's also in the middle of nowhere. So the question really is where does it go from here? Right now you're taking a look at Irma. Again, it's not really around land of any kind. Still well away from the Leeward Island and even the Caribbean, but that is going to be direction it ends up going.

Here's to look at the current statistics. Right now a Category 3 storm, winds around 120 miles per hour, moving west at about 13 miles per hour. But as we take a look at the track, you'll notice that it's going to start to take a more southerly turn pretty soon.

Now, the reason it does that is it's going to have a height. It's going to block it pushing it south. But in doing so, it's actually going to end up getting into slightly warmer water. This may actually allow the storm to strengthen even more, perhaps into a Category 4 storm, if not potentially stronger. So that's really the short term.

The ultimate question is what does it do in the long term. So let's take a look at what some of the models are kind of spitting out for this, per se. We take the top two models that we have. As it treks across the Atlantic, coming in towards the Caribbean, both models really have pretty consistent tracks. It's once we get towards the Bahamas, that's when they split.

This red color here, this is the American model. It keeps it further away from the U.S., hugging a little bit closer towards Bermuda. But the European model actually treks further west, pushing perhaps some showers and thunderstorms from the storm towards Florida and, Erin, even maybe skirting along the North Carolina and South Carolina coast.

The problem is now you're talking 7 to 10, even 12 days out. So it's little far to know which one of these scenarios will pan out, but that's why we will keep a close eye on it in the coming days.

BURNETT: All right, Allison. Of course everyone's eyes are on this after the catastrophe in Houston on the Gulf Coast. Thank you so much.

And next, on top of that massive fire at the chemical plant in Texas we're covering that and our exclusive test is in. We went out, tested the toxic floodwaters. So what is in them? Well, the OutFront test results literally came in about 15 minutes ago. You are going to see them just after this in their entirety. Brace yourself.

Plus, a man returns to his home for the first time. Will he ever be able to live there again? And a letter about Jim Comey may prove to be big trouble for the President. What's in it?


[19:18:35] BURNETT: Breaking news, officials in Texas warning about bacteria in the toxic floodwater that is right now drowning the city. We have the water tested and the results came in just a few minutes ago. Elizabeth Cohen is OutFront live in Houston.

And Elizabeth, break the news here. When you were out yesterday, I know you collected samples of the floodwater, so now it's -- here we are. Today you've gotten these results back and what's in it?

ELIZABETH COHEN, CNN SENIOR MEDICAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Erin, unfortunately the numbers are stunningly high. I'm talking about bacteria, especially fecal bacteria. Let's get right to the numbers.

When we looked to E.coli, which is an indication of fecal contamination, the numbers in our first sample, we took three in a small area, 8,600 CFUs or colony forming units, 3,700 in the second sample, 6,300 in the third. The EPA standard for recreational waters, for water that people swim in is zero. You're not supposed to have any.

Now let's look at total coliform, that's another indication of bacteria. The first sample was 57,000 CFUs. The second sample 43,000. The third sample 45,000. The EPA standard for recreational water according the A&B Labs in Houston that did the testing for us, they tell us that standard is less than 100. So as you can see these numbers are much, much higher than that. Now, the lab manager at the lab said these numbers are huge.

[19:20:02] He said, "We do water testing every day. That's what we do." He's never seen numbers like this in water that is publicly accessible. And it's not just fecal bacteria that he's worried about, he said these numbers are very concern, are an indication that there could be something called vibrio vulnificus, that's the flesh eating bacteria. And he said he's really worried about the people who would have waded through this water and so are we to include this water. Erin?

BURNETT: And, Elizabeth, that is terrifying because we know what that can do. So you're saying that they're very worried about the possibility of flesh eating bacteria, that people could have been exposed to that. I mean, what does this mean for the people who are in those floodwaters, because that is tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people have been in that water.

COHEN: Right, exactly. So the concerns are on two levels. First of all, people -- I've seen it, people are out in the water. They inadvertently sort of splash around and water can get in your nose, it can get in your mouth and you can ingest it, you can inhale it. That can be dangerous for people who are fragile or who have immune issues.

Now for most of us who are healthy, you'll get some diarrhea, it will go away. But for other folks who are older and weaker, that can be really a deadly problem. The other issue, if you have a cut that's large enough in your legs or anywhere in your skin and it gets in there and you don't clean it out quickly, that could be a serious infection.

BURNETT: Right. And of course with the flesh eating bacteria, that is obviously with horrific outcome. I mean, that's the risk, too, of that. I think it can get in any kind of cut, right?

COHEN: Right.

BURNETT: And then walk (ph) to other thing.

COHEN: Right. And that could -- that would be -- and, Erin, that would be even for a healthy person. Even if a healthy person gets that in a cut in their flesh and they don't clean it out soon enough and that cut is big enough, that could be deadly.

BURNETT: All right. Elizabeth Cohen, thank you very much. Very sobering results here.

I want to go to David Paulison, who's the former FEMA administrator from 2005 to 2009. And you, sir, replace Michael Brown after hurricane Katrina hit so you oversaw the FEMA recovery efforts there. I appreciate you taking the time.

Look, you just heard these results. This stuff is toxic. This stuff is foul. There could be flesh eating bacteria, which as we know for incredibly healthy people can result in horrific outcome. How worried are you when you hear these results?

DAVID PAULISON, FORMER FEMA DIRECTOR UNDER PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Very much so. This is really, really nasty water. And it's very difficult for people not to be in it because there's so much flooding. But as much as possible, they need to stay out of the water if they can. You know, don't get it on your hands. If you do, try to wash off and get clean.

There can be some terribly nasty infections that can very hard to stop, quite frankly, is that petrochemical stuff (INAUDIBLE), it's not just coli, E.coli bacteria, there's a lot of other stuff in this floodwater that can be very harmful to you and your family.

BURNETT: And I mean, you know, we're looking at these images. I mean, people are walking in it. People are diving under it to try to retrieve things. And people are in this water. I mean, that's the reality here.

Let me just show the screen again, sir. You know the first study for E.coli, 8,600 chemical -- forming units. The standard is zero. And for coliform, 57,000 on the first test, the others were marginally better. But, I mean, the standard is less than 100. So on that basis, they're all the same. What can people do given this? I mean, this isn't going anywhere for weeks, if not months, for many people.

PAULISON: Yeah. They just need to stay out of the water as much as possible. And I know that's hard. It's very hard because there is flooding everywhere. But you can get really, really sick or have a terrible infection like you said and any type (INAUDIBLE) and it didn't (ph) have to be a big one. All it has to be is an open wound of any kind and there are a lot of materials out there. People are cutting cut. People are getting hurt.

We have more injuries and deaths and the fatalities in the aftermath of a hurricane than we do during the storm itself. People get tired. They're not thinking clearly and they do things they probably shouldn't do as tired as they are.

BURNETT: So then we also understand that the contamination can be so bad that protective gear wouldn't work, right? I mean, people think, you know, you put on some sort of a rubber suit, if you even have that. A lot of people, of course, are just going out in their regular clothes. But, I mean, I'm talking about first responders, people who are risking their lives to go out there. That isn't really even fully protection, right?

PAULISON: If they have a full Tyvek suit, the answer would be yes. But we have to buy you (INAUDIBLE) and never delays as we put the place over in Tyvek suits and then decontaminant aided them when we took them out of the water. That's not happening here. There are too many people. There are too many responders. So they need -- the first responders need to know what's in this water so they can take precaution to take care of themselves.

BURNETT: And I hope that they do know because, I mean, as you heard the people who did the testing said they've never seen water like this in their lives and they do this every single day.

I want to ask you, if I can, about the response thus far. And I know as you point out from here it can get incredibly dangerous. Floodwater is still going up. You can have more people die after the hurricane where we are now than you did during. So this is a crucial time. The retired General Russel Honore, I know you know him. He oversaw relief efforts for Katrina.

[19:25:02] Earlier this week he came on the show and said the response to Harvey in his view was amateur hour. And last night he said some of the failings include how many military on the ground. Here he is.


LT. GENERAL RUSSEL HONORE, COMMENDED MILITARY RESPONSE TO HURRICANE KATRINA: I do think we need to scale up. We don't have enough troops here and they don't have enough on the way. I beg to be wrong and let the politicians be right. But I don't see the world the way they see it. I see it through riding around this state, 18 hours a day for the last three days.


BURNETT: You heard him going around 18 hours a day. Could he be right that it is amateur hour? Is he seeing something that maybe others aren't?

PAULISON: Yeah. You know, I respectfully disagree with General Honore. He's a good man. He had a great military career, but I see things little bit differently. I see a great amount of coordination between the federal government, the state and the local that we just simply didn't have in Katrina.

We have a state emergency management system in Texas as one of the best in the country. We have thousands and thousands of national guards on the ground. We have the coast guard. We have Custom and Border Protection. We've got the marines there. FEMA has thousands and thousands of people on the ground, plus all of the neighbors helping neighbors, people that came in from across the country, bringing their boats and getting people out.

I think it's been yeoman's effort and, you know, nobody is patting themselves on the back. This is a huge event and it is very tragic. But for the size of this event, what I see and the coordination that I see and I've been probably in more hurricanes than anybody else in this country, and I'm telling you, I'm very pleased at what I'm seeing.

I'm not pleased with what happened. Don't get me wrong. I'm not pleased with what's happened to people's homes and their families and their lives. But as far as the response and people moving in, I think it's great. Yeah, we did use north com during hurricane Katrina, but there were mission assigned to FEMA. We gave mission assignment that we're needed. And it was not a mass amount of helicopters just flying everywhere. They were transporting people from hospital to hospital.

So it's a different scenario than what I think what General Honore is seeing and, again, I'm very respectful for him. He's been a good friend, but I think we're doing very well considering the enormity of this event.

BURNET: All right. Well, I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

And next, yet another White House staffer, this one incredibly close to the President leaving. Who prompted it? And breaking news, we're learning more about a "problematic letter" about Jim Comey revealing why Donald Trump fired him. How worried should the President be tonight?


[19:31:11] BURNETT: Breaking news, new details about the letter President Trump planned to send to then FBI Director Jim Comey explaining why he was firing him. That letter is now in the hands of special prosecutor Robert Mueller, according to "The New York Times".

Now, the letter was drafted by President Trump himself. But this letter, this original letter, with his intentions, was actually never sent because it was blocked by Trump's attorney, Don McGahn, who said it's angry and meandering tone was problematic.

OUTFRONT tonight, Maggie Haberman, one of "The New York Times" reporters who broke this story, David Gergen, served as advisor to four presidents, and John Dean, of course, President Nixon's White House counsel during Watergate.

Maggie, you broke the story. You know, pretty amazing what you're finding here. Tell me what you know, what was in this original letter.

MAGGIE HABERMAN, WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, THE NEW YORK TIMES: Sure. This is my colleague Michael Schmidt and I reported on this earlier today. We have not seen a copy of this letter, so I want to be careful not to jump to conclusions. We have had its contents described to us from several people, particularly the tone. This was written over a long Bedminster weekend where the president was alone with only his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, his oldest daughter Ivanka Trump, and Steven Miller, his senior policy aide who has been a political aide on the campaign and has been with him for some time and who he trusts. So, there were not really other aides around. This is a few days

after James Comey's May testimony and the president was very irritated by that justify. You recall, that's where James Comey said that he felt I think slightly nauseated was the phrase, that he may have played a role in the outcome of an election based on the Clinton e- mail issue in 2016.

The president constructed, you know, drafting with Steven Miller, essentially, Steven Miller was in the stenographer role. The president was just giving his unfettered thoughts on his frustration with Comey. He was very angry with Comey. He was displeased with how he handled it.

The president privately refers to the three interventions by Comey during 2016 related to the Clinton email investigation. One, his press conference, then his later letter to Congress, and then his update to Congress that there were no new emails as Comey one, Comey two, and Comey three. And he talked about it that way.

They drafted this letter. The president showed up in the West Wing on Monday. Having concluded he was going to fire Comey, read this letter out loud and the White House counsel, Don McGahn, halted that as going out on its own, seeing a couple of red flags.

BURNETT: And those red flags, the tone here, as you describe it from your sources, Maggie, angry and meandering. That Don McGahn felt you cannot send this letter.

HABERMAN: It was repetitive, according to sources. It really was essentially, you know, the raw, undistilled thoughts of the president on James Comey, a man with whom he had growing dissatisfaction over several months, and had been thinking of firing since the transition.

There was an oblique reference to the investigation into possible Russian collusion where the president referenced and I'm paraphrasing this, but it was essentially, you have privately told me I'm not under investigation. The president was very frustrated that Comey would not make that public. And so frustrated that even though McGahn, you know, had sort of suggested this should not be in there.

Rod Rosenstein, the deputy attorney general, produced his own memo. He had a copy of the president's draft. He then wrote his own memo, which became the rational for why Comey was being fired.

The Justice Department, I should add, was, in fact, looking at firing Comey even before this happened. They were looking into his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation. There was a strange collision of events, essentially.

[19:35:03] But the president cared so much about the fact that Comey would not say publicly that he wasn't under investigation that he found a way to slip it into the final four paragraph version of the termination letter that he sent.

BURNETT: He did get in there. So, John, let me ask you. What do you make of the fact that the president, president writes this? It's clear from Maggie's reporter, he wrote it. He dictated it, whatever it was. Steven Miller, his aide, is there, but essentially writing it down, right? He's in a secretarial role. But Don McGahn, the White House counsel, said you can't send this. The tone too angry, the tone meandering.

What's the significance of this, John?

JOHN DEAN, FORMER NIXON WHITE HOUSE COUNSEL: Well, we don't know what's in the exact content. But what it suggests is something more than editorial objection. In other words, that the White House counsel might have seen, one, the development of a conspiracy. He might have seen language that was inappropriate for a legal reason, which would be obstruction of justice. It is hard to tell. We're speculating.

But the fact he objected is important to understand in that they didn't use this letter and then they went forward. But it may well show the intent at that time.

BURNETT: David, how damaging could the letter be?

DAVID GERGEN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: We'll have to wait and see. I think we ought to be very cautious until we know the contents. But clearly what Mueller is examining is exactly what John Dean said. Does it add to the weight of the argument that Donald Trump's real intent was to close down Comey, which could be interpreted as an obstruction of justice?

And the fact that he's intemperate and so forth means they also just don't want to let it go public. But I think, again, we ought to come down on the side of caution. But we do know, more fully now, that what Donald Trump all along has really, really hated Comey for is not Hillary Clinton, although, he very much objects to that. But what Comey was doing to him and the investigation that Comey was undertaking.

BURNETT: John, does this change anything the fact that Steven Miller was involved? Now, as Maggie described it, the stenographer sort of a role. But nonetheless, his is not a name that has come up in this broader Russia investigation until now.

DEAN: Well, it suggests another party involved. If there is enough here to show that he indeed became a participant in some agreement to help remove Comey, that could put him across the line in an obstruction of justice.

But again, David is right we can't speculate this. It could also exonerate him. He may have notes surrounding it from when he prepared that letter that will show one thing or the other. So, it's too early to know exactly what it means. But it is true it's the first we have heard of Miller being involved in this process.

BURNETT: And, Maggie, what about in terms of -- you know, the president as we know after the letter that was actually delivered came out, you know, told Lester Holt, the whole Russia thing was a problem. You know, so it was clear his motive, it wasn't just he was recommended to do this by Rod Rosenstein, right? He made that clear.

But then he did in days afterwards at one point saying, a week afterwards, I got a strong recommendation from the Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, he's saying, to go ahead and fire Jim Comey. Does your reporting the timing of this letter make it clear that any of that was possibly untrue, that this is Donald Trump himself all the way and he put a sort of fig leaf in front of him?

HABERMAN: Look, I think Donald Trump -- I want to echo what everyone else said, that we don't know what this means for the investigation, and I think that's crucially important to bear in mind, number one. But number two, we know Donald Trump said to Lester Holt he already decided to fire Comey even before that recommendation, and that is true. And that's what our reporting bore out.

But what our reporting also did bear out is that Rod Rosenstein, in fact, was looking at getting rid of Comey even prior to that meeting in the White House on Monday, May 8th. That was a real thing. It may turn out -- and again we have a lot to learn here --

BURNETT: But you are saying that was because of the Clinton e-mails.

HABERMAN: That was indeed because of the Clinton emails. But what I'm saying is that I think it may turn out that several things were true at once. What remains to be seen is what role the Russia probe played in this and that president had that interview with Lester Holt. His aides have pushed back pretty hard on there was -- there were -- there was one quote where he said something to the effect of I had the Russia -- I was thinking of the Russia probe, you know, when I was ready to do this and he went on to say because the Russia probe is a fake and excuse by Democrats because they lost the election.


HABERMAN: His advisors see that as a mitigating statement. We will see if Mueller views it the same way. I do think there are multiple things going on here which in the course of Michael Schmidt's and my reporting really bore out. There were -- there was a strange confluence of events.

BURNETT: All right. Well, I appreciate all of you very much coming on.

[19:40:03] And, Maggie, thank you so much.

HABERMAN: Thank you.

BURNETT: Of course, Maggie and Michaels's reporting there.

And next, he's out, a top Trump confidant, perhaps the top when you look at the past decades of Trump's life, his right hand man, calling it quits. Why? And why now?

And after the storm, I will speak to a husband, a father who is not sure what to do or where to go now.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: This is the stuff you can't replace, right? I mean, this is -- these are my son's birth announcements.



BURNETT: Breaking news, President Trump's longtime bodyguard and confidant out. Keith Schiller was the director of Oval Office operations, telling people he plans to leave the White House by early October. He says it's from financial concerns but sources say he was also unhappy with chief of staff John Kelly's new rules.

Now, Schiller is as close as it gets to Donald Trump. He's been with him since 1999, almost always by his side. I can tell you in many times I have seen Donald Trump, Keith Schiller has been there every single time. He is so trusted that it was Schiller, as you see there, who was actually one who delivered Trump's letter firing Jim Comey to the FBI. It was also Schiller who rushed to the podium when a protester tried to two after Trump on a stage, and it was Schiller front and center when Trump got into it with Vince McMahon for a stage Wrestlemania press conference back in 2007. They go way back.

And OUTFRONT now, former senior adviser to President Obama, David Axelrod.

[19:45:05] David, you know, look, this is -- this is a big departure, perhaps the biggest because the other ones have been people -- OK, you know the national security advisor is. But they were relatively new to the Trump orbit. Keith Schiller is Trump's right hand man and has been for decades. Schiller is saying this is primarily because of financial concerns. His salary at the White House about $165,000. When he worked for Trump Organization, he earned about $300,000.

One source, though, says he was frustrated with John Kelly, that he had to go through the switchboard at the White House now to get through the president instead of literally being by his side.

What do you think happened here?

DAVID AXELROD, FORMER SENIOR ADVISER TO PRESIDENT OBAMA: Well, I think both things may be true. People who know say he had always planned to go back to New York after a year or so on the job. So, this would be a little premature. But it isn't completely out of left field.

But I also think it's true that if you have spent decades at the side of someone and now a new chief of staff comes in trying to impose a rational structure on the White House, which means really limiting people's access to the president, it can really chafe. And I'm sure that that may have been entered into his decision to leave a little earlier than he planned. BURNETT: You know, one former aide told CNN Schiller was, quote, the most underestimated person on Trump's team. And, you know, I can tell you over the many years that I interacted with Donald Trump professionally, Keith Schiller was not there. He was not a body guard. He was more than that. Friend may be too strong of a word but as close perhaps as anyone gets to that word with Donald Trump.

Corey Lewandowski said, anytime I wanted to understand something, I would ask Keith. And I think that's a fair thing to say.

Here is Schiller actually in a rare time, in his own words on his relationship with Trump.


KEITH SCHILLER, OVAL OFFICE OPERATIONS DIRECTOR: Had a great rapport with Mr. Trump and I still have a great relationship. Great boss to work for. You know, I have nothing but good things to say about him.


BURNETT: How big of a loss is this for the president to legal cause hose him now, David?

AXELROD: You know, I have to guess, it's a very big loss. Every president needs some people around him with whom he's completely comfortable and whom he has absolute trust, someone who understands his idiosyncrasy, someone who understands his preferences, someone in whom he feels he can confide without any guardedness.

And he clearly -- Mr. Schiller clearly was one of those people for Donald Trump. And remember, there has been a parade of people who left the White House recently.

Now, I will say that his daughter and his son-in-law remain and he is obviously close to them. But that's not like the staffer.

You know, Barack Obama had Reggie Love was his body man, and Marvin Nicholson was his trip director. And while these weren't policymakers, they were companions and understood how the president wanted things done. They understood how he relaxed and so on. And it was very important to him to have them at his side.

So, I imagine that the president will miss Keith Schiller very much, and it may had to this sense of isolation that we hear he's feeling these days.

BURNETT: Absolutely. All right. David Axelrod, thank you so much and thank you for that word, companion. That's the word I was looking for. It truly does describe their relationship. Thank you.

And OUTFRONT next, starting over. What do you do when everything is gone? Your home, your life, it's just gone. My next guest just returned to his waterlogged home. He's going to try to answer that question.


[19:51:11] BURNETT: Breaking news: A fire raging at that chemical plant just outside of Houston. Locals have been evacuated in a 1 1/2 mile zone around the plant, as the black smoke plumes go into the air, although it appears unclear exactly what toxic chemicals could be in that smoke from what we were told at the top of the hour.

Back in Houston, some families are trying to come home for the first time.


BILL WOLF, REVISITED FLOODED HOME YESTERDAY: There's going to be a mailbox here. There's going to be a mailbox right over here.


BURNETT: We were with one Houston father of two, Bill Wolf, when he was finally able to get back into his home. He described the painful reality.


REPORTER: The worst part is the personal stuff?

WOLF: Yes, I mean, this is the stuff you can't replace, right? These are my son's birth announcements. I mean --

REPORTER: Which of your sons?

WOLF: Mine.

REPORTER: What are you preparing for?

WOLF: Preparations are hard right now at this point. I guess we're prepared we might not ever be back here.


BURNETT: And joining me now is Bill Wolf.

I mean, Bill, gosh, it's hard to watch that. I can't imagine how you must have felt. I know you had to go back in there. I know you didn't have your wife or kids with you, of course, when you went back.

How are you and your family doing?

WOLF: Hi, Erin. We're doing OK. Every day is an adventure here. Today is a better day than yesterday.

My kids are safe, my wife is safe. That's all we can hope for at the moment. We're very blessed and fortunate that we made it through, everything OK. There's a lot of people that have much worse situations than us, and we're hoping and praying and doing everything we can for them now. So, we're making it through OK, thank you. BURNETT: Now, Bill, I know we saw you, you were with, of course, Alex

when you went into the room where your family photos were. That was a really moving moment. I mean, all those pictures of your children, your albums. Were you able to save some of that?

WOLF: You know, we -- we didn't have much warning when the water was coming up. There was -- we had lost power for several hours before Sunday night. So, the last communication we had, which is really spotty, was that our neighborhood wasn't going to get flooded. So, when it started coming, it started rising about a foot an hour.

And it came into the house really quickly. It was about 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. So my children were asleep downstairs in our bed. We first got them to safety, got our pets to safety. My wife and sort of thought, you know, a couple feet of water would get in the house.

So, we took everything we could and put it about four feet up, took the very important stuff and put it upstairs, and pretty quickly, we ended up having to evacuate. We had lost water, sewer, power, and cell communications were spotty.

So, at that point, a dear friend of ours came over in his boat, or he mobilized his boat and we got what we could, put in a couple of garbage bags and we evacuated to our friends house.

BURNETT: I mean, I know you've lost a lot. I know you tried to save some things and you're blessed to have that. But you did lose a lot, right? Your television, your furniture.

WOLF: We did.

BURNETT: The things of life, your car. OK? How are you even starting? Where are you even starting, Bill, to try to rebuild? Because you have to do it and you have to do it fast.

WOLF: Well, you know, we were taking care of the essentials. We've got such wonderful people in our lives. Over the last three days, we've been so blessed with having the care and support of our family and of our friends, and of absolute strangers who have put themselves in harm's way to pull us out of it.

[19:55:06] And we are blessed and we are so fortunate to be surrounded by so many wonderful people in our lives.

There are a couple of tough moments for us where, you know, during the evacuation, we were stuck. We couldn't get out. We had four feet of water. We had two little kids. We had some stranger named Lance in a pickup truck with a 12-inch lift kit and literally drive us to safety.

So, you go through and you lose stuff and it's stuff. That's what it is. And some of that stuff is important, but you know, you're blessed with your safety. My children are safe, my wife is safe, I'm safe. Our friends are safe.

There are people that aren't and we need to focus on helping them and everything else will sort out. Right now, we're just doing one day at a time, and we're doing the best we can.

BURNETT: All right. Well, Bill, thank you very much. And good luck to you and your wife and your two little boys. Thank you.

WOLF: Thank you. I appreciate that, Erin. Thanks.

BURNETT: And tonight, there are victims of Harvey in one Texas town that say they feel forgotten. It's a very small town, Wharton, Texas. It's about 60 miles from Houston.

You haven't seen it. You haven't seen anything really about it, and it's under water everywhere. Sixty percent of the town flooded, residents desperately in need of help and supplies to survive.

Martin Savidge is there.


MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Wharton is marooned. Floodwaters have to flow over or sit on top just about every road in and out of this town of 9,000.

It's been like that since Wednesday when the Colorado River and other nearby waterways poured out of their banks, flooding 60 percent of the time.

(on camera): How fast did it come up?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I would say, an hour. An hour from the time I talked to him everybody was out of there. Maybe it was a little bit longer than that. But it was quick.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The heart of the town is filled with water, and so are the neighborhoods nearby. Folks here are just trying to make due.

Richard Brown and his son, Alex, were out checking on family and searching for food.

RICHARD BROWN, RESIDENT: Most of the staples are out, milk. Bread, they just got a shipment. That's why we're able to get that. We got lucky. But a lot of the aisles are empty, really picked up over. Low on meat, eggs. Eggs are gone.

SAVIDGE: Since we can't get to their home, they gave us some video of what it looks like.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's our house. Every square inch of the yard is submerged.

SAVIDGE: Groceries and gas are in short supply.

The two shelters are filled. Bessie Walker and her husband Robert and their dogs and cats prefer to live out of their truck in a parking lot of the junior college. BESSIE WALKER, RESIDENT: My husband sleeps in the truck. I make a

palate on the tailgate and sleep on the tailgate. That's where I sleep. It works for me. It's nice. It's cool and hadn't rained on me.

SAVIDGE: The couple fled Houston and came to Wharton to stay with a friend.

WALKER: We came from Rosenberg and we were here one day. I got a nice hot bath, dinner. The next morning, my husband and them went to get cigarettes. Came back and water was everywhere.

SAVIDGE: Now, they all sit in the shade by the road, waiting for the water to go down.

(on camera): Do you think towns like this are overlooked?

WALKER: Yes, I do. I really do, because where's everyone? Where's FEMA?

Where's -- you know, you need a place to stay? We'll set up a place for you. Where is it? Because it's not here.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): The Red Cross and National Guard are here. Still, residents are feeling overwhelmed and overlooked, lost in all of the focus on Houston.

PAULA FAVORS, WHARTON PUBLIC INFORMATION OFFICER: There's a lot of people even in neighboring towns that aren't even aware that we're still flooded, that we still cannot access parts of our town, and that people are still displaced.

SAVIDGE (on camera): Do you feel forgotten, overlooked?

FAVORS: Absolutely. Sometimes you do feel forgotten.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): Fortunately, what Wharton has plenty of is people like Kelsey Folmer. She too grew up here and left, but after hearing about the flood, came racing back to help.

(on camera): You are like a whirlwind. You are.

KELSEY FOLMER: I'm trying to like keep up. I wish I had ten phones and a hundred voices to get the word out.

SAVIDGE (voice-over): She's got tents going up and a food truck coming in.

FOLMER: Yesterday, we fed 400 people. Today, we're hoping to feed much more than that.

WALKER: I've never seen such outpouring of help as I have in Wharton.


BURNETT: Amazing that community coming together. Martin, what's the message if people in the town want, you know,

people watching tonight to hear?

SAVIDGE: First, they want people to know they made it through OK. Nobody in this town died and they're doing pretty good, considering what they're going through. But the water is going down. That's the good news.

They're going to need a lot of help rebuilding and starting all over again. So if you're hearing this and wondering what you can do, come on down to Wharton, they say. We can use every hand, just lay it out to them -- Erin.

BURNETT: All right. Martin Savidge, thank you very much, from the ground there in Wharton, Texas.

And thanks so much to all of you for joining us. Our breaking news coverage continues now with "AC360."