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Interview With Texas Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee; Another Trump Administration Exit; Hurricane Aftermath; Major Fire at Texas Chemical Plant; NYT: Mueller Has Draft Letter Trump Wrote on Comey Firing. Aired 6-7p ET

Aired September 1, 2017 - 18:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


[18:00:15]

JIM SCIUTTO, CNN ANCHOR: Happening now, breaking news: deadly dangerous. A new warning tonight about life-threatening conditions in some parts of the Texas flood zone. Stand by for live reports on the disaster response that is still urgent one week after Hurricane Harvey hit.

Cost of recovery. Hundreds of thousands of people now are asking for federal aid as this catastrophe unfolds. Is President Trump willing to push Congress to deliver more than just a down payment on a price tag that might soar to $100 billion or more?

The next disaster? A powerful hurricane is on the move in the Atlantic right now, raising fears that it might slam into the U.S. coast as well. Would overtaxed federal emergency teams be able to handle a second major storm?

And another exit. After a series of dramatic departures from the Trump White House, we are learning that another person close to the president is ready to call it quits. Stand by for new details on that, as well as reports of crucial new evidence in the Russia investigation.

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

ANNOUNCER: This is CNN breaking news.

SCIUTTO: We are following breaking news in the Texas flood disaster. The governor warning of deadly, dangerous conditions in Beaumont, Texas, tonight, the city already under water, and now threatened by a river that is still rising above record highs.

We are following new evacuations, including intensive infants in intensive care being airlifted to safety. That city has not had any running water for well over 24 hours, adding to the urgency of the crisis there. New efforts are under way to get tap water flowing again possibly as soon as tonight.

In Houston, the mayor is pleading with people still holed up in flooded homes to get out now, saying the water may not go away for as long as 15 days. More than 100,000 homes are flooded in the Houston area alone. The scope of devastation growing, along with the death toll that stands at 47.

With the horrors from Harvey still unfolding, the new threat of a disaster looming, Hurricane Irma churning across the Atlantic right now, posing a major threat to the Caribbean and potentially the U.S.

Also breaking, as President Trump prepares to return to the disaster zone tomorrow, there is a major new development in the Russia investigation. "The New York Times" reporting the special counsel Robert Mueller has obtained a draft letter written by the president and a top aide before James Comey was fired. It reportedly lays out in detail what really led Mr. Trump to get rid of his FBI director.

We are covering all of that and more with our guests, including officials in hard-hit areas of Texas. Our correspondents and specialists also standing by tonight.

First to CNN's Brian Todd. He is in Beaumont, Texas.

Brian, tell us what the situation is there right now.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Jim, tonight, engineers here at this water treatment facility in Beaumont are working around the clock frantically trying to get the water flowing again in this city.

But they are battling a raging river that is well over its banks. Just a short time ago, Governor Greg Abbott of Texas said that the Neches River is seven feet above its records and it is going to stay that way for probably about a week.

This comes tonight as officials throughout this region are still responding, assessing, trying to get their minds around the scope of this disaster.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

TODD (voice-over): A first look at the destruction Harvey has left behind. Roads destroyed, homes knocked off their foundations, boats precariously perched, lives and livelihoods destroyed by floods.

But in Beaumont, they're desperate for more water. The roughly 100,000 residents of Beaumont have been without drinking water since about 1:30 Thursday morning. Now they're lining up for a bottled supply. The motors on the main water pumping station shorted out when the river spilled over its banks.

The secondary pumps also disabled by floods. So the city rushed specialists in who are working urgently to get the water flowing again.

(on camera): Right now, that is the water lifeline for residents of Beaumont. It's a temporary station set up by Exxon engineers and other engineers, pumping water from the Neches River through this orange pipe right here and up to the pumping station. It takes a long time to get up there and to treat the water, and that's what residents here are counting on.

(voice-over): The engineers understand how desperate residents here are to have their water back. But they have got to make sure it's safe to use.

ASHLEY ALEMAYEHU, EXXONMOBIL: There is a lot of steps that still need to be completed. They need to get through the water treatment phase and work through all of the treatment facilities that you need in order to actually get back into the homes. I know the city doesn't have a timeline on that just yet.

[18:05:08]

TODD: At Beaumont's hospital, they aren't waiting. The most fragile of Harvey's evacuees are being airlifted to safer locations. Among them, these premature babies who have been separated from their parents for days due to flood conditions.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're just calling them and letting them know every couple of couple of hours how their babies are doing. They need to take care of themselves right now and we will take care of their babies.

TODD: There have been more than 72,000 Harvey-related rescues this week, adults, children and pets of all kinds plucked from the rising water and taken to safety. But in some areas, residents remain.

In Houston, these families are just now getting to dry land after seven long days in waterlogged neighborhoods.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So, so long as we have food, it's tough. But now we're running out of food and water, so I'm out here.

TODD: In West Houston, officials strongly urging those with water in their homes to leave now, as water is planned to be released from stressed reservoirs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Floodwaters in the homes is a hazardous situation. There is dangers of electrocution. There is dangers of structural compromise. It is not a safe place to remain.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

TODD: But homeowners in the region are going to get some help in assessing the hazards and the damage to their homes. A federal official tells CNN there are about 1,000 housing inspectors from the federal government on the ground in Texas with maybe 200 more on the way.

And, Jim, they are going to desperately need help to assess the damage and some of the dangers around their homes.

SCIUTTO: No question, Brian Todd there.

We're going to go now to another part of Beaumont, Texas, one of the hardest-hit communities from Harvey, where the river is still rising. We have Miguel Marquez. He's on the river front in front of the Neches River.

We can see it kind of boiling there behind you. What are the conditions like on the ground?

MIGUEL MARQUEZ, CNN CORRESPONDENT: It is amazing. Just look at this thing, Jim. This thing is just the monster that this community has been dealing with for sometime.

They expected it to crest at 1:00 p.m., but I just talked to Jeff Branick. He's the Jefferson County judge here, and he says that their best information now is that it will crest tomorrow, 1:00 p.m. Central time, 11 inches higher than today. This rain, this river, it just will not give up.

In looking across here at the river, it looks, one, more like the Mississippi, it's so wide. But the currents running down it are just incredible to see. And the amount of debris going down this river is incredible as well.

You see whole trees. It looks like islands sometimes moving of trees moving down this river. All of this causing so much distress for the community, including one hospital, Baptist Beaumont Hospital here, forced into the decision to basically evacuate all of its residents; 193 people were there 24 hours ago. Today, there are less than 80.

They had a really dramatic day today in moving premature -- babies born prematurely. We saw some of those in their NICU units, or neonatal intensive care unit, today just before they were transferred, to see those little hands and little legs trying to struggle for life. Children and babies are so fragile to begin with, but to see these premature babies born, they had to be moved by ambulance to the airport and then they were flown out by fixed-wing aircraft because they were concerned.

They were going to do it by helicopter, but then they were concerned because of the incubators they use for these babies are so big and they would have to squeeze them into the helicopters and they're not quite as stable. They wanted to do it by plane. It seems to have gone successful. Those babies are now in Galveston, Texas, where they will be cared for until the water comes back on here in Beaumont -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Those are delicate cases even during the best of times. Imagine trying to evacuate them all through this.

Miguel Marquez, thanks very much.

Well, tonight, Beaumont residents are desperate just for drinking water, even as officials try to get some of the taps flowing.

I want to go to CNN's Kaylee Hartung.

Kaylee, I know, where you are, you have been seeing many of those people in need. How are the residents there responding to this?

KAYLEE HARTUNG, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Jim, as this water crisis continues, cars continue to line up here at the one distribution point for water that the city of Beaumont has set up.

Last night, 16 truckloads full of water from ATV, the grocery store, pulled into town from Houston, of all places. This morning, the city got logistics in place to start servicing people, about 9:00 a.m. this morning

Each car is getting two cases of water, some MREs, those meals ready to go. Just got delivered about an hour ago. Cars are now getting those as well as, and one bag of ice. By our estimations, we think about 5,000 cars have been serviced from this location so far today.

But that's not the case everywhere in this city that's trying to get safe drinking water to the people. There are a couple other distribution points.

[18:10:01]

There was one site at a church today where they had advertised that four truckloads of water were coming in from College Station. A member of the congregation, her son had organized this effort. Cars were lining up today, some in line for as long as four hours. Those trucks never showed up.

We know there have been so many problems on the roadways here in Texas as water continues to move. Well, the route that they were taking here that they thought was safe turned out not to be. But as the mother of that son told me, she said whoever was able to get that water in the place that needed it, we're glad that they could have it even if we can't.

Real human emotion here, Jim.

SCIUTTO: No question. It's heroic work they are doing.

So, they get a couple cases of water, some MREs, meals ready to eat, military meals, in effect. How long is that limited supply meant to last for these families?

HARTUNG: Well, what's incredible to see here, I'll tell you, Jim, when we got here this morning, we thought the supply we saw would run out. Like I told you, it was 16 truckloads. Each of those trucks had 32 pallets of water on them. You can see how big those pallets are behind me.

This place said they would stay open until supplies lasted or darkness came, whichever happened first. But now I think there are more supplies than daylight left. If that's the case, then the city will be handing out what they have got left tomorrow, hoping that additional resources are able to get here.

But they don't want to promise anything. Just like the trouble that church had, they don't want to promise any resources until they have got them here inside the city. Beaumont feeling like a bit of an island, Jim, with all the trouble it is to get resources into the city.

SCIUTTO: Kaylee Hartung there with some of the relief efforts.

We have some news into CNN, and these are new pictures we are about to show you, news there is a possible fire or explosion. This is in Crosby, Texas, which is a plant there run by the company Arkema. It's a chemical plant, plastics, chemicals for plastic, et cetera.

You can see the smoke rising there. This has been a continuing concern. These plants, of course, they depend on electrical power. When they don't have electrical power, they don't have refrigeration. Some of these chemicals are very volatile and you can have fires, even explosions.

This, as you can see there, some of those buildings behind with those black marks, they have already had fires, small explosions. With that smoke there now, sadly, looks like signs of another explosion there. We are going to continue to monitor this over time.

Keep in mind, that kind of fire explosion, not just a danger there on the spot. It's a danger to surrounding communities. Those clouds of smoke can be toxic, and that's one reason why around plants like this, the evacuation area has been expanded. They want people nowhere nearer than a mile-and-a-half and we are seeing a measure of that right now.

I want to talk more about the crisis unfolding in Beaumont, Texas.

We have the Jefferson County Commissioner Everette Bo Alfred back on the phone.

Bo, I have had the opportunity to speak with you a couple times this week as your community has gone through what it's going through. As we look at new pictures now from a chemical plant, either on fire or an explosion, I know Beaumont has a lot of refinery services, et cetera. What's the level of concern where you are?

EVERETTE BO ALFRED, JEFFERSON COUNTY COMMISSIONER: Well, you're right. Beaumont has a lot of refineries, et cetera.

But I'm very confident in their expertise and their safety records, one. Number two, those plants are the ones helping the city with their expertise and the engineering section to get us past the point of not having water.

So, I feel comfortable with where we are moving at this present time. You can't gauge some things happening, and we just have to deal with it, pull ourselves up by the boots and keep on moving.

SCIUTTO: No question. Listen, we are -- I have certainly been impressed and I'm sure many of our viewers as well with the sense of purpose that you have shown, the residents there have shown.

You mentioned something that's been one of those signs of neighbors helping neighbors, but that you have engineers from other companies, whether it be Exxon, some of the oil companies, helping out with, for instance, getting water going to Beaumont, Texas. Tell us some stories about that, about how people are pitching in. ALFRED: Well, see, that's the good thing.

You have those plants that have expertise, but not just those individuals. For example and I will go larger, the state of Texas. We have a Texas Association of Counties. I received a call today from the executive director. I'm on the board there.

People from West Texas, county judges, commissioners, they are sitting water into our way. I have several county commissioner friends who are sending truckloads of water in, too. So that just shows that the community, I call it, and Texas is a big community, much, much larger than you can ever imagine.

And, locally, it's every neighbor helping everyone. We're still rescuing people out of the north end. Where you see the raging river, that's still water rising there. It has never risen to the degree that it has already. And that, there's caution. That has a lot of individuals nervous.

[18:15:05]

SCIUTTO: Oh, it must.

And I know a big portion of the town still underwater, and when you look at that river there, it's actually still rising. Do you have a concern, are you fearful that people might not be able to come back?

ALFRED: No.

As I said yesterday, we are resilient people here in Southeast Texas. We believe in helping each other. And I know we will come back stronger than ever. We have -- we have good reason.

When you start looking at the petrochemical plants, we kind of fuel the country and we fuel the world to a great degree. So, we have a lot of reasons to make sure that we work hard to get back up on our own feet, moving forward, and not looking back.

SCIUTTO: Let me ask you this.

You know the first decisions are being made about federal aid to Texas. We heard the president speaking today about $6 billion, but everybody says it's going to be many times that.

If you had the opportunity to speak to the president or to congressional leaders, what would you ask for? What do you need, money, financial assistance, and help most for now?

ALFRED: To get our infrastructure back up and going, to help those families, that 100,000, 200,000 homes that have flooded out, get those homes back, and get FEMA, get the people that can help those individuals that you noticed earlier, that have taken precious goods out and put them to the curb, get them money and resources to get them back up and going in their households.

That's very important to everything for our community, because that will keep our community together. So, we know that that help will be tremendous. And for those individuals around the country, if you give to the Salvation Army, it would be great, because that is the driving wheel that's been helping us tremendously.

SCIUTTO: As we have been talking to you, we have been watching that river still rising in Beaumont. We have also been watching smoke rise from a chemical facility in Beaumont, Texas, there. Appears to be a fire or an explosion.

One of the most -- one of the biggest problems, I know, Commissioner Alfred, is just access to the basics, clean tap water. And that's still an issue for residents in Beaumont.

ALFRED: It is. It is, and it's something that we have to get corrected and it has to be done in short order.

I have tremendous faith and confidence in those engineers that -- the companies and, i.e., private firms that have pitched in to help the city, I have tremendous, tremendous belief that they will do it in a short order.

SCIUTTO: Well, listen, Commissioner Alfred, we're rooting for you. We have got confidence in you. We wish you the best of luck.

ALFRED: We appreciate you. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Well, please stay with us.

We continue to monitor the smoke rising above a chemical plant near Houston, Texas. And will the U.S. get hit by another hurricane just days from now? We will bring you the newest forecast on Hurricane Irma's power and its path towards the U.S.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:22:55]

SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

You are watching live pictures there of a fire at a chemical plant. This is in Crosby, Texas just northeast of Houston on I-90. We have been watching this develop and it's gotten much, much worse just over the last few minutes.

It started with a small plume of smoke, gray smoke, and now a raging fire, black smoke billowing up into the sky. This is a plant run by Arkema. It's a chemicals and materials company. This is a plant that makes peroxides for plastics.

Anyway, what's important about that, these are volatile chemicals. As these plants have lost power, they lost refrigeration, the things that keep the chemicals stable. And you can see what happens and the immense danger there.

Earlier in the week, a couple days ago, we saw some small fires around there, but nothing on this scale. And, as I said, getting much worse just in the last several minutes as we have been watching there, spreading from one building to another.

This -- aerial pictures, and this one from a further distance away, you can see just how far away that smoke is visible.

Yesterday, the company that runs this plant, Arkema, ordered an evacuation of any residents within a mile-and-a-half of the plant, not just for the danger of explosion or flames, but also the fact that that smoke can be dangerous. It can be noxious. You don't have to be close to the fire itself to face danger here

And this is the kind of danger, not just confined here. You have a lot of chemical refineries; 30 percent of the country's gasoline is refined in this area. Those refineries, many of them underwater, and danger of things like this.

Again, fire raging there now at a chemicals plant run by Arkema. This is in Crosby, Texas, just northeast of Houston off of I-90. And, as I said, it started with a small plume of smoke. We have been watching it for several minutes. And now it is a raging fire there.

Big question is going to be, can fire and emergency services get there in time?

[18:25:03]

As well, keep in mind a lot of the roads, of course, closed. Hard for those emergency services, which are already stretched by the many rescues they have had to do, to get there and control this.

Wow. Just in the last couple minutes, it's now expanded to more buildings there. A very serious fire under way there at that chemical plant.

We are joined now by Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas. She's at the Houston Convention Center, not far away.

Congresswoman Lee, you have heard me there, I imagine, describing this fire raging at this plant. How much of a danger -- are you aware of this particular fire, first, I might ask you, and then how much of a danger are things like this elsewhere in the Houston area?

REP. SHEILA JACKSON LEE (D), TEXAS: Well, Jim, first of all, let me thank you so very much, and I always start this by offering my prayers for those who have lost their lives and those who are missing, and then certainly those who are surviving.

And I always start by thanking all of the first-responders in the United States military and Texas National Guard. So, thank you for allowing me to do that.

Yes, I am in the energy corridor and I am aware of it. I'm also on Homeland Security. We have done a lot of work with chemical plants. And what I would say to you, Jim, it's just not enough. But what it does speak to is that the growing amount of money that we're going to need is growing, and that there are a lot of elements that are not in the immediacy of rescue and recovery and survival that is going to be part of the federal government being engaged in the recovery of this whole region.

We are an energy corridor. We have chemical plants. We have refineries. God help us that those private companies did what they were supposed to do, but we do know that chemicals are volatile. We do know that water can be volatile with chemicals. And these things will happen.

What we hope is no loss of life and a reckoning with the help of Environmental Protection Agency, Homeland Security, and the Department of Energy and others to contain these happening further, and to keep the Texas National Guard on the ground so that after they do all the rescue and recovery of individuals, that they will be around to be of assistance in emergencies like this along with the first-responders.

We need to have that kind of boots on the ground for a long period of time.

SCIUTTO: If you're just joining us now, this is a fire raging at an Arkema chemical plant in Crosby, Texas, in Northeast Houston on I-90.

And just in the last few minutes, we have watched it grow from a little trickle of smoke to now a raging inferno there, spreading from building to building.

Congresswoman Lee, is the EPA on the scene in Houston? An immediate question, is the air from a fire like this, the smoke billowing up now, is that dangerous?

LEE: You can be assured that those federal authorities, just as we were on the ground, not at the -- not right at the moment, the Waco -- the West Texas fertilizer tragedy, we're going to have to be on the ground now.

And you can be assured that we will be reaching out for EPA. EPA has regional offices, so that means that they're not far away. And we're going to expect that kind of assistance. Of course, the county and the city has their own environmental components and the state. All of them will have to come to protect the residents who are in the area and to ensure that every aspect of that fire is out so that it does not spark up, if we can get it contained now, doesn't spark up in the middle of the night and damage those that may still be in the area.

That's our greatest concern, is the fallout of collateral damage of residents around the area. And we do have residences around the area. So, it would have to be the federal government in terms of FEMA, and the EPA and other agencies. Department of Energy would be relevant, and the other agencies, but many times they also use the National Guard or our military friends who have expertise in situations like that, particularly since they are trained for calamities in war.

SCIUTTO: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

LEE: So, there is civilian response, but we have called them too. We want them to be helpful to us. SCIUTTO: As you have been speaking there, we have seen small

explosions add to this fire, which is really -- I mean, it's an inferno now, those flames rising dozens of feet into the air. Gives you a sense of the volatility.

An immediate question is, in light of the road closures, just the extent of the community still underwater, Congresswoman Lee, I don't know if you know, but is it possible that firefighters can even get to a location like this?

LEE: Jim, you have raised the question of why this is a catastrophic event, singular in its impact and now its range.

That's why I'm asking -- I don't know if they can get there. And that's why I'm asking that we need, in essence, to have all the military personnel here and experts here, because they may have to be fire fighters.

[18:30:22] You know, they came out to a feeding station where I was with people who are hungry, and they came in military, high-water vehicles. They have the capacity working with our fire fighters to get them in -- I can't see the visuals right now -- or to be able to collaborate with them on putting this fire to bed.

But also, we need an assessment. We need the cooperation to collaborate or cooperate with us. We need a refinery by chemical plant by chemical plant by refinery check. We have got to get an understanding of the danger of these facilities that are a part of the energy corridor here in the united -- here in the United States.

But here in Houston and the region. We have got to get an assessment, because I know these corporations -- this is not what they want to have happen. They've got to open their doors. We've got to get inspectors in there. And we've got to make sure that the damage of Hurricane Harvey has not triggered what has apparently triggered this catastrophic situation with this fire.

I'm hoping that our main job now is to get it contained. Where there are chemicals, that fire is going to burn.

SCIUTTO: It is, and you can...

LEE: And I was out at another location...

SCIUTTO: You can see it now. I'll tell you, Congresswoman, it is getting -- it's getting worse as we speak here.

LEE: They're showing it to me right now.

SCIUTTO: At Arkema, this is -- I said "Arkeema" earlier -- it's Arkema is the chemical company here, who has told us that these organic peroxides they make at this plant are, in their words, extremely flammable and that's-- well, it's playing out on our screen right now. Those flames rising several stories into the sky there and expanding as we speak. As you mentioned, Congresswoman Lee, this is the energy corridor. You

have a number of chemical plants. You've got refineries, refining a good portion of the gasoline around this country. Do we have any sense of how many plants like this are in danger now because they don't have power? Because as you said earlier, when they interact with water, it's dangerous.

LEE: Well, Jim, I just had one of your very able CNN media supporters show me on his phone the conditions there. And being in this corridor, I am familiar with that, which is one of the reasons why I so strongly support the EPA and the regulatory scheme.

But let me tell you what needs to be done. First of all, as soon as I finish here, I'm going to be reaching out to FEMA, because they -- they involve all of these elements of disaster needs.

But the real point is that we need an inspection, chemical plant by chemical plant, refinery by refinery, collaborating with the owners of these particular plants to determine what is their present condition.

Now, here's the point, Jim. A lot of the staff, hopefully, are out of there, because they are under water. So, there's probably or was a skeleton staff. And I hope that there is, in God's grace, no injuries or death because of this fire.

But we need to look at all of the other ones. And we need to assess it so that I can give you the accurate answer so that the governor can give an accurate answer. So county officials can give an accurate answer, and city officials.

I'm calling out now to the federal government that we need a team down here, like a hazmat team, and begin to inspect all of these facilities, along with the corporate owners, so that we do not have one catastrophe after another. We can't handle catastrophes that may be causing a loss of life or putting the employees of these plants in jeopardy when they are called back to work or a larger component of staff are back operating. I know that they have the skills as corporations or the owners, but I want the federal government in there assessing the situation. That is crucial.

We've gone through catastrophes before. We've seen loss of life. This is nothing to fool around with. And as a member of homeland security, where we put in some new laws regarding what we call chemicals called CPHAT, where we try to ensure the containment and the labeling and the protecting of the public from explosive chemicals, I am telling you that this is something that we should not ignore, and that the federal government must be involved and engaged almost immediately as we begin to recover, which is why I believe my $150 billion recovery fund aids package has to be taken seriously. As I've heard that it is. And that we have to begin to get the monies down here to spread it in places where we're not even aware that we need those resources. We may need them dealing with the whole energy corridor at this time.

[18:35:09] SCIUTTO: Well, one thing is clear, is that $6 billion initial emergency funding the president and Congress talked about today, certainly just a down payment. We're talking about numbers well above even Katrina and Sandy combined, perhaps.

Congresswoman Lee, I know you've got urgent issues to attend to as we watch this fire develop. Thank you for taking the time. We wish you the best of luck.

LEE: Thank you, Jim. And you're right, it is a down payment, and I believe my leadership Republicans and Democrats, will work with us. Thank you.

SCIUTTO: Good luck. Good luck to you, Congresswoman.

LEE: Thank you.

SCIUTTO: If you've just joined us now, you're watching a major fire at a Texas chemical plant. This is in Crosby, Texas. It's in northeast Houston. And just in the last half hour, we have watched it on the air live grow from a trickle of smoke to, now, really a raging inferno there. Those flames rising several stories into the air.

And of course, a crucial question is, can emergency services get there? The road behind it there, a major road, you don't see any traffic. Where are the fire fighters? Can -- are the fire fighters capable of passing those roads to get there? Are their own houses under water? Have they been called elsewhere to make rescues? Crucial question as you watch that black cloud of smoke rise into the sky there at the Arkema plant.

We have Brian Todd on the phone now. He is in nearby Beaumont, Texas. Brian, tell us what you're learning there.

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via phone): Well, Jim, you know, we see the same pictures you do of this fire. What we can tell you is that officials here have been worried about this for days. When we first heard of trouble at this plant and about the chemical peroxide that they make there, the organic peroxide being at such really incredible levels of heat that this could happen.

What we do know also is that about 15 or so deputies who were sent to the plant over the last couple of days, I think two days ago, did inhale some smoke and were treated for it, but officials later said that that smoke was not toxic. And those deputies were OK.

But you raised a very good question earlier. That are first responders going to be able to get there to fight this fire? Are they going to be able to fly choppers in or something else in to be able to douse these flames? And, you know, previously, they had let these explosions and fires just kind of burn out on themselves, burn out by themselves. But it's not clear whether they're going to be able to do that with something of this scale or not.

So we're trying to get more information as we go. You know, they evacuated a 1.5-mile radius from that plant in the -- about a day or so before the first explosion happened. So, the danger to the community probably is minimal at this point.

But, you know, they did have an 11-person ride-out team in that plant on the night of the storm, and then when the system flooded and the cooling system -- that cooled down the toxic peroxide substance, when those cooling systems really couldn't operate anymore because it was flooded, I believe, I they said it was 40 inches of water on the floor of that plant.

Well, then they had to get that 11-person rideout team out of there and they got them out of there probably I think three days ago. So, Jim, you know, this is something that officials, I'm sure, in that area of Crosby, Texas, are figuring out right now how close can they get to it.

SCIUTTO: Well, that -- that important news there from Brian Todd that that skeleton staff that had been left there during the storm apparently left earlier, which at least puts them at no immediate risk. We are going to confirm that.

Again, we are going to continue to follow this story, a raging inferno developing just over the last half hour or so in Crosby, Texas. Please stay with us. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

[18:43:42] SCIUTTO: Welcome back. We are following breaking news. This is a raging inferno underway in Crosby, Texas at a chemical plant run by the Arkema company. That's just in northeast Houston.

And as we've watched it over the last several minutes, it's gone from a trickle of smoke to really no other way to describe it but a raging inferno. Those flames there behind that smoke at times rising many dozens of feet in the air.

This is a danger that we knew about. There had been some small explosions, small fires in recent days. Company executives had apologized for those fires, had apologized for not releasing more information about the chemicals contained there, and had warned about the danger of further fire and explosions. And, in fact, those warnings bearing out, and that is what we are watching right now.

There are some remaining crucial questions we don't know the answers to. Will there be an emergency response? Are there fire services in the area that can respond to this? We don't know. The roads to this point have been empty.

Two, how dangerous is that smoke rising in the air? Company officials had said yesterday when asked, when pressed, in fact, that the smoke was noxious, in their words. They would not say whether it was toxic, dangerous. But I'll tell you, as you look at it rise there and those flames, certainly raises very serious questions as to the danger to the surrounding community.

Of course, another obvious question, the danger to those surrounding buildings there. How many more buildings, vulnerable to fire and explosion? We know that the kind of chemical this plant makes, an organic peroxide, is in the company's words, extremely flammable.

[18:45:02] How many more buildings, vulnerable to fire and explosion? We know that the kind of chemical this plant makes, an organic peroxide, is in the company's words, extremely flammable.

How many other buildings there in a similar situation? Will we see this fire expand? We don't know, but already a very serious one.

Brian Todd, CNN correspondent who is in the area, is on the phone with me now.

Brian, what do we know about whether there has been any staff at this plant in recent days?

BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (via telephone): Jim, there was an 11- person ride out staff there who was kept there as of Friday, when the storm was still approaching, and over the weekend. But sometime, I believe Sunday or possibly Monday when official here became cognizant of the fact that the cooling systems in this plant had flooded with about 40 inches of water and had shut down, they got those 11 people out of there. I believe that was Monday, possibly on Tuesday when they got those people out of there.

And then they proceed to evacuate about a 1.5-mile radius, you know, around that plant of any residents who were there. So, the danger to the public may be minimal now. We were told yesterday that they were not sending anyone back into the plant from the Arkema Company or any first responders or anything, but they were going to let these fires burn themselves out, just play out naturally and just basically fizzle out.

They said that they -- this is coming from Arkema officials, by the way. They said they expected this to happen. That the chemicals would become unstable as they could no longer be cooled. And that what you're looking at, as horrific as it looks, they did say they expected this, Jim.

SCIUTTO: I should note Arkema is a French company, and this particular plant has been described and noted as one of the most hazardous in the state of Texas. So, you can imagine the consequence to the surrounding community as that plant, one of the most hazardous in Texas, is now in flames on our air, and we've watched that fire grow in recent minutes, and what we have not seen is any emergency response.

Now, to be clear, that may not be possible. The emergency services extremely stretched in the area, fire fighters have been rescuing people from flood waters, saving lives. They may not be able to come, they may be elsewhere. It's also possible the roads leading to this plant are blocked. That's a key issue. And, of course, it may be possible that there is not a way to put out this fire and that the best way is to let it burn out.

But I'll tell you, as I watch it there, and I've seen it spread from one building to another, the question is, what is the risk in those other buildings? Can it spread to them? And will we see this fire expand?

Again, these are live pictures of a fire raging at a chemical plant in Crosby, Texas. This is in northeast Houston. We are going to stay with this and continue to update you after this

short break.

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[18:52:43] SCIUTTO: Welcome back.

We are following a breaking story out of Crosby, Texas. This is just northeast of Houston. Dark, black smoke, red, hot flames spewing from a chemical plant there.

The fire has been growing rapidly at times in the last hour. Those flames were jumping many stories into the air. We have seen it die down a bit in recent minutes here.

This is a chemical plant. It's owned by a French company, Arkema. This particular plant, known to be one of the most hazardous in all of Texas.

And this a result of the flooding because at they've lost power, they've lost cooling. These are very volatile chemicals. They become very flammable without that cooling and we are seeing that playing out there now.

The unanswered questions, open questioning still, how noxious, how dangerous toxic is that smoke to the surrounding community? An area about a mile and a half around the plant had been evacuated in recent days because of the danger of fire. But that smoke is going high in the air and going farther than a mile and a half away, I can tell you that. There has been no emergency response we have seen there and maybe the firefighters cannot get there or they're elsewhere occupied with rescues or perhaps they made a decision they have to let this fire burn out.

We're going to continue to monitor this fire for you on this breaking story as we continue to cover the after effects of Hurricane Harvey.

Right now, we also have breaking news in the Russia investigation. Evidence that should shed new light on way President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Here is CNN justice correspondent Jessica Schneider.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JESSICA SCHNEIDER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Tonight, special counsel Robert Mueller has new details about the real reason President Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. "The New York Times" reports the Justice Department handed over a letter President Trump and top political aide Stephen Miller drafted to Comey but never sent, in which the president explains his rationale for the firing. The details of that letter had not been disclosed.

"The Washington Post" reports it was a multi-page letter that detailed Trump's frustration with Comey's unwillingness to publicly state that the president was not personally under investigation as part of the Russia probe. "The Times" says White House counsel Don McGahn opposed sending the letter and ultimately, a different one written by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was sent.

The Rosenstein memo faulted the former FBI chief for his handling of the Clinton e-mail investigation.

[18:50:04] The White House wouldn't confirm the existence of President Trump's letter but says his lawyers are working with Mueller.

SARAH HUCKABEE SANDERS, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: The extent the special prosecutor is interested in these matters, we will be fully transparent with his investigation. And frankly, I don't have anything to add beyond that.

The letter disclosing President Trump's true intentions comes as the president's lawyers are making the case to Mueller in meetings and memos that the president did not obstruct justice when he fired FBI Director Comey in May.

A source familiar with the memos says the legal team lays out the president's constitutional right to fire for any reason and argues that Comey's questionable credibility prompted the firing. But it was the president himself who admitted to NBC that he fired Comey in part because of the Russia investigation.

DONALD TRUMP, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In fact, when I decided to just do it, I said to myself, I said, you know, this Russia thing with Trump and Russia is a made-up story.

SCHNEIDER: Mueller's team is also coordinating with New York Attorney General Schneiderman. Schneiderman launched an investigation into Trump campaign chair Paul Manafort this summer, delving into Manafort's financial transactions. Since the president cannot pardon state crimes, any threat of prosecution from Schneiderman could prompt Manafort to cooperate in Mueller's broader Russia investigation.

Meanwhile, California Congressman Dana Rohrabacher is insisting Julian Assange and WikiLeaks were not behind the leak of hacked Democratic National Committee e-mails last year.

REP. DANA ROHRABACHER (R), CALIFORNIA: I think what we have here, it's really important for the truth to be known.

SCHNEIDER: Rohrabacher met Assange in August at the Ecuadorian embassy in London where Assange was granted asylum. Sources say the Senate Intelligence Committee is now considering calling on Rohrabacher to talk about the meeting while Rohrabacher is promising to brief the president on the details Assange disclosed.

ROHRABACHER: And I understand that a meeting with myself and the president is being arranged. So, at that point, the American -- the purpose is to alert the American people to the truth.

SCHNEIDER: And the Russian-American lobbyist who was inside that June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower which included Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Paul Manafort and a Russian lawyer among others, is telling his story. "The Financial Times" reports Rinat Akhmetshin testified before a grand jury special counsel Robert Mueller is using on August 11th. Don Jr. took the meeting when he was promised damaging information on Hillary Clinton.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

SCHNEIDER: And Donald Trump Jr. has agreed to sit down with the Senate Judiciary Committee for a transcribed interview behind closed doors as investigators dig into that June 2016 meeting. Senators have told CNN they expect him to appear as soon as this month. It's still unclear, though, if Don Jr. will eventually testify publicly, but committee leaders do say an open session is still on the table -- Jim.

SCIUTTO: Jessica Schneider, thanks very much.

I want to go now to our analyst here.

Kaitlan Collins, you cover the White House. Steven Miller drafting this memo with the president, Steven Miller really a political advisor, what does that tell you about the president's motivations for or at least his initial description of his motivations for getting rid of James Comey?

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN WHITE HOUSE REPORTER: Certainly very interesting. Steven Miller is a speech writer and policy advisor for the president and he had been writing this. But what this really shows is how inconsistent the White House was in those 48 hours after they fired James Comey because as you know, on Tuesday, James Comey was fired and on Wednesday, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, when she was still a deputy press secretary, said that the only reason that the president fired James Comey was because of his recommendation from the deputy attorney general.

And then, of course, the next day the president said in an interview with another network that he fired him because of the Russia investigation. So, what we're seeing is that from the story that they had -- the president had directed Steven Miller to start writing this letter over the weekend when they were at his golf course in New Jersey. So, it shows us this is a very well-intentioned thing, but it really makes you question the White House's credibility.

SCIUTTO: Yes. Ron Brownstein, does this look like to you the special counsel is zeroing in on obstruction of justice by the president?

RON BROWNSTEIN, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL ANALYST: You know, the fact they are presenting arguments as to why he shouldn't make the case, you know, the predicate of that is they're concerned enough. Look, you know, to me, the big lesson of this is that criminal investigations are hard, are not really susceptible to the day by day or step by step analysis we apply to political campaigns or legislative battles. We don't know all of what the special council knows.

But what we do know is this continues to grind on, Jim, I think in a very systematic way. And while all these other events are buffeting this presidency, from the hurricane to Charlottesville, there is this reality of this is kind of marching on toward a conclusion that could be much more threatening than it looks today.

SCIUTTO: Ron Brownstein, Kaitlan, David Swerdlick, thanks very much. I'm Jim Sciutto. Thanks very much for watching today.

"ERIN BURNETT OUTFRONT" starts right now.

ERIN BURNETT, CNN HOST: OUTFRONT next, breaking news, smoke billowing from a chemical plant outside of Houston. A dangerous new category 3 hurricane, in the meantime, is gaining strength at this hour. Is it headed for the U.S. and the Gulf Coast?