News Brief: Houston Update, Trump And Russia

Aug 30, 2017
Originally published on August 30, 2017 7:33 am
Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The worst weather is slowly coming to an end for Texas but just beginning for Louisiana. The center of Tropical Storm Harvey has made landfall again - this time, along the southwestern Louisiana coast. In and around Houston, though, the floodwaters are still perilously high. David, you have been there. You've been kind of stuck in this hotel for days, but you got out for a little while yesterday. What'd you see?

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

I - Rachel, I saw some flooding yesterday that is - it's beyond comprehension. We were on a road in the Cypress Creek neighborhood in the north of Houston. We passed, you know, a drugstore, an insurance company, and then the bridge ahead - it just disappeared. I mean, it descended into what looked like a lake, except you saw these rooftops sticking out of the surface of the water.

There were about a dozen boats near this bridge. Some were returning. Some were going out. And we got a ride with two cousins - Matt Hernandez (ph) and Bill Dan (ph). They're just volunteers with a fishing boat, and they decided they wanted to help in any way they could. And we went out on the water, and Bill told us they are trying to evacuate as many people as they can who are left. But some residents, they just refuse to leave.

BILL DAN: Some people just want to stay in their homes and ride it on out. But reports yesterday - we had people that said they want to stay. And then they call later that night, scared, and then the fire department had to go back out and go get them at nighttime, which makes it even more dangerous for the people trying to rescue them.

MARTIN: Wow.

GREENE: Yeah, it's just - you had to keep reminding yourself that you weren't on a lake, that you were actually above a neighborhood. I mean, there were, like, cars submerged. It was just awful. And so flood victims are leaving these neighborhoods, still pouring into downtown shelters. But a big question here in Houston is - there are these two big dams in the city. And, you know, a lot of people were wondering whether they're going to hold under the force of so much floodwater here.

MARTIN: OK, we're going to bring in NPR's Nate Rott. He's been covering that part of the story. He's also in Houston.

So what about these dams, Nate? I mean, they were doing some controlled releases. And then didn't one of them just break?

NATHAN ROTT, BYLINE: No, they haven't broken. I mean, there's - so we're talking about two reservoirs. Let me just back up. There's the Addicks Reservoir, and there's the Barker Reservoir. They're both in northwest Houston. They're both above residential neighborhoods, businesses, Interstate 10. I mean, obviously, the big concern here is that they could break. They could breach, which would be hugely destructive.

MARTIN: But one of them, the water started overflowing over the top. So it was going around.

ROTT: Yeah, so overtopping is what the officials were calling it.

MARTIN: Got it.

ROTT: ...Which is basically water coming over the top of the dam. They've been adamant in saying that that does not threaten the structural integrity of the dam or the levees. They're trying to avoid that integrity being threatened by basically trying to release as much water as they can. I mean, to give you a little idea of how much water we're talking about here, it's not just coming over the top. It's coming out of the sides. It's even - it's coming in so much faster than it's coming out that it's even flooding upstream into homes there.

MARTIN: Oh, man. So what does that mean? I mean, the worst of the rain is supposedly over. But, I mean, with all this flooding, can you say that the worst of the storm is done?

ROTT: I don't know that I'm going to say it. That's certainly the hope here in Houston. But there is a lot of water that's coming down these waterways. I mean, it rained more than 50 inches in parts of this state. And some of these rivers, they may not have crested yet, so we could see higher flooding in some of those areas. There're still thousands of people out of homes. We talked to some people next to the San Jacinto River - which is away from these reservoirs - yesterday.

But one of the issues there is that some people hadn't evacuated. And those - some people in the neighborhoods just below these reservoirs hadn't evacuated. They thought they could ride it out. Emergency officials were trying to get people out yesterday as fast as they can. I think they're going to continue today. Now we're just going to have to wait and see.

MARTIN: NPR's Nate Rott, talking to us from Houston - thanks so much, Nate.

ROTT: Yeah, thanks.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: The storm in Texas has given President Donald Trump his first role as consoler in chief.

GREENE: Yeah, I think that's a good way to put it because President Trump was here in Texas yesterday. He was visiting operations centers responding to Harvey. And while he was here, he made it clear, I think, that he's already thinking about how everyone is going to judge his administration's response to this disaster.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: We want to do better than ever before. We want to be looked at in five years and 10 years from now as, this is the way to do it.

GREENE: OK, so is his response to Harvey a model to look for, thus far?

MARTIN: Let's ask Domenico Montanaro, NPR's lead political editor. He's on the line.

Hey, Domenico.

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: Seems, in general, like officials in Texas were pretty pleased with the president and the federal government's response to this storm.

MONTANARO: Yeah, I think that's true. And, you know, it's very early to judge. And as you're - as you noted there with that clip, you know, it's - the president is very aware. He seems acutely aware of the perceptions. And that's something that most strategists and most professionals in communications would say you probably don't want to do. But I think the president also tried to show that the federal government is going to be there. It's going to have the response.

You saw him bring out cabinet members like Ben Carson from Housing and Urban Development, like Linda McMahon from the Small Business Administration. You had the Department of Transportation last night say that it was going to be granting an initial $25 million to help try to shore up some of the bridges and roads. Of course, that's going to be a drop in the bucket and not going to be enough money. And they're going to need to fight for some of that federal funding, going forward.

MARTIN: Well, that was my next question. You're so smart, Domenico. Recovery is going to take a really long time. Even the president has admitted such. He told Senator Ted Cruz of Texas that anything Texas wants, it will get. Can he keep that promise?

MONTANARO: Well, it certainly indicates that the president's putting a marker down to say that he's going to fight for that kind of funding, and that he's going to go to Congress, ask for the money that's needed. He's going to do whatever is needed from the federal side of things, but then really try to push Congress on some of that money that it can appropriate. And there's no reason to expect that Congress...

MARTIN: Wouldn't...

MONTANARO: ...Wouldn't give Texas the money it needs.

MARTIN: I want to end on some news that came out of the Pentagon last night. This is about the president's transgender military ban. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis announced last night that transgender service members will be allowed to keep serving until the Pentagon can study what a full ban would actually look like. How do you read that? Is he out of step with the president on this?

MONTANARO: Well, military members and leaders want to make sure that they don't, quote, "break the faith" with transgender members and people in the military. You know, they're going to have this planned review to look at whether or not they can have military readiness, lethality and unit cohesion. And that's what the standard has been. And clearly, this is Mattis getting a win.

MARTIN: NPR political editor Domenico Montanaro - thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: OK, as President Trump sorts through this week's challenges, we have a challenge now.

GREENE: Yeah, that challenge is to sort through - in just a few minutes - everything you need to know about where things stand with the Russia investigations because, I mean, it seems like this is not easy - because even as we cover lots of other news, there's new information about those investigations that just trickle out day by day.

MARTIN: Right - no small task. NPR's Mary Louise Kelly, I believe, is up to it, though. She is in our studio this morning.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, BYLINE: (Laughter) Let's do this, Rachel.

MARTIN: ...Intrepid reporter that she is. OK, Mary Louise, first, the two names making headlines this week - Michael Cohen and Felix Sater - tell us about them.

KELLY: They are, indeed, making headlines. OK, so Michael Cohen - longtime lawyer for Trump. Felix Sater is a Russian-American businessman who has also crossed paths with Trump. And they are making headlines because it has come to light, as so many things do, via emails - I think this is exhibit - what? - 4 zillion, and that you should just never email...

MARTIN: Right, never email.

KELLY: ...Anybody about anything ever. It will end up on the front pages. But what's come to light is that in early 2016 - so early stages of the Trump campaign - Cohen wrote to the personal spokesperson of Russian President Vladimir Putin. And he wrote to try to jump-start a deal to build a Trump Tower in Moscow - and that the reason Cohen wrote this was on the advice of Felix Sater, who had bragged about his ties to Putin, bragged that a deal like building a Trump Tower would help the Trump campaign. One key line from the emails - and I'll quote it - "buddy, our boy can become president of the USA, and we can engineer it."

MARTIN: Wow, yeah, that's jaw-dropping, to some degree. So how do you see the significance of this? How big a deal is it placed alongside the - all the other twists and turns of this?

KELLY: Well, from a business point of view - not significant. The project never got funding. There is, today, no Trump Tower in Moscow. But this does add to the list of known contacts between Trump associates and Russia. And it also shows that the Trump Organization was reaching out to top Russian government officials looking for help on business deals, even as the Trump campaign was gearing up into full swing.

MARTIN: So this is a big question in the seconds remaining. Can you update us on where - I mean, we've talked about this specific revelation, but where are all the Russia investigations at this moment?

KELLY: Right. So on Capitol Hill, lawmakers come back next week, and they all say September is going to be busy. We know the Senate Judiciary Committee, one of the committees investigating, says they have fixed a date for the son of the president, Donald Trump Jr., to come in and talk to them. This is in connection with this now-notorious meeting that unfolded at Trump Tower in New York. So that's going to happen - not going to be public.

Meanwhile, the Senate Intelligence Committee, House Intelligence Committee, other committees are investigating. And of course, over at Special Counsel Robert Mueller's office, his investigation plows ahead. So September - not looking quiet.

MARTIN: NPR national security correspondent Mary Louise Kelly doing her work, breaking down all the intricacies of the Russian investigation and revelations this week - thanks so much, Mary Louise.

KELLY: You're so welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLOCKHEAD'S "WONDERFUL - INSTRUMENTAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.