Transcript: Tom Bossert on "Face the Nation," August 27, 2017

Tom Bossert on Harvey

Hundreds of rescues have been made in Houston, with many more expected Sunday, after Hurricane Harvey made landfall Friday as a Category 4 hurricane. 

"Face the Nation" talked to homeland security adviser Tom Bossert Sunday about the ongoing federal response to Harvey, which was downgraded Saturday to a tropical storm and has caused "catastrophic flooding" in Texas.

A transcript of the interview with Bossert follows.

MAJOR GARRETT: We turn now to White House homeland security adviser Tom Bossert. He's overseeing the White House response to Hurricane Harvey, in partnership with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security. Those two agencies obviously are in charge of the federal response. Tom, it's great to see you, thanks for joining us.

TOM BOSSERT: Thanks Garrett, good morning.

MAJOR GARRETT: So we have a serious situation in Houston, and it's evolving by the hour. How serious is it? Are we talking about hours ahead that could be both deadly and on an ongoing basis require massive intervention in terms of rescue and sheltering?

TOM BOSSERT: Yeah, I think you said it just right. So what we're focusing on now is saving lives, and that's rightly so, right? That's the case. But what we're here involved in is a marathon. And so I think there's two messages for me today. The first is that we're focused on life safety operations, and the second is that we're not going to lose our focus as the next days and weeks unfold and people need continued assistance.

MAJOR GARRETT: Now, there have been complimentary messages exchanged between the governor and the federal government. You know those are premature. It's no time to be patting anyone on the back. This is an ongoing and deadly situation. Houston was not evacuated. There was not even a general, voluntary evacuation order. Was that a mistake? And does that now put a lot more people in peril than otherwise would've been?

TOM BOSSERT: So it's not premature if you do it the right way. And so let me make a case for that statement. This governor has demonstrated great leadership. His emergency manager, Nim Kidd, has demonstrated a great deal of experience and calm. And what the two of them did was get together and ask for an unprecedented degree of federal support prior to landfall, something that we haven't seen before.

And what Brock Long at FEMA did and myself and the president, we got together and, and reviewed that carefully, and decided on Friday night that the president would issue a major disaster before landfall. Now, what's important about that is it freed up federal resources, but it also freed up those federal resources for the individuals affected. That's the unprecedented nature. Generally what we'll do is provide money and assistance to those governments so that they can do what they have to do to save lives, and then we'll wait later and give money to the individuals as need demonstrates itself and presents itself.

What we did is said no, we're going to provide that - that assistance to the individuals as well. And any additional counties that require that assistance, as individuals or the - or the public, they'll get that and the FEMA director has the authority to add it. So--

MAJOR GARRETT: My point, though, was that that's generalized assistance. What matters is how it translates on the ground, and you've got tremendous amount of work ahead.

TOM BOSSERT: One of the things that we have to do is make sure that the people on the ground know that there will be no impediments above them so that they don't have - have to make any prior -  prioritization decisions. So if there's a competition for limited resources, they make bad decisions.

What we do is make sure they have all the resources they need so they can make decisions based on the best interests of the individuals they're trying to help and save. So that's where we are today. The second part of your question was let's not lose our focus on how bad this still is. Some news coverage outlets, not yours, are reporting that this is being downgraded and it's less of an event, it's just a storm now. That's a mistake.

We're going to see continued rain, upwards of 30 inches. I don't think people understand what 30 inches of rain. I certainly - I don't understand. I've been around dozens and dozens of major disasters and hurricanes, hundreds of disasters. I've never seen 30 inches of rain. So what we're going to do is pay attention to this, watch the inland flooding unfold, make sure we take care of the people with their food, water, and shelter needs.

And then we're going to posture ourselves for the long-term care of the medical needy, of the elderly, of the weak. And then we'll put ourselves in the position to provide the resources to rebuild and recover. And so that's -  that's our priority right now.

MAJOR GARRETT: The president's been active on Twitter. Explain to our viewers what else the president has been doing on an hour to hour basis.

TOM BOSSERT: Well, among other things, he's been talking to me and Brock Long and his acting Homeland Security secretary, Elaine Duke. Yesterday we had a two hour-long almost conversation with his entire cabinet and all of his senior leadership team. The president was actively involved in that and making sure our operations were coordinated, unsticking any disagreements, of which there were none at this stage.

The vice president was very actively involved in that. In fact, the vice president and the president have both called me in the last 12 hours probably a dozen times each. So what he's doing is making sure that we're coordinating. And so what I liken this to is a race. We're off and out of the blocks the right way. That's because of strong preparedness and strong leadership. But now we have to run that race, and then we have to finish that race well. Now--

MAJOR GARRETT: So what are you most anxious about in the next 24 hours?

TOM BOSSERT: Well, it's not a regular race, it's a relay - it's a relay race. There's a lot of moving parts. So there's a lot of effort, but we have to unify that effort into one direction. And so what I'm worried about is that we don't drop the baton. With this relay race we have mayors and governors and presidents and cabinet secretaries and nongovernmental officials.

I think there were 900 Red Cross volunteers yesterday when the vice president talked to the head of the Red Cross. I think we have 3,000 people in shelters. Those are in churches and other nongovernmental organizations that are sponsoring those things. So what we have to worry about is not dropping the ball of coordination. All the resources are there, now let's make sure that we apply them in a way to help the people, and not worry about the governments.

MAJOR GARRETT: Oftentimes when communications are interrupted the military can step in with standup communications, can provide logistics, can provide lift to get supplies to places. Do you foresee any circumstance, if this rain continues and basically sits over the greater Houston area, that you might need to go in that direction?

TOM BOSSERT: Yeah, that's the big concern. So while there's been 1,000 rescue operations, now we have to figure out how to gain access into places that are flooded with cloud cover. We can't always use helicopters. Sometimes we have to use ground assets. And so what we need to do is deliver commodities.

Now, here's what I tend to tell people. The way we deliver commodities, the federal government is in the - in the wholesale business, and the state and local governments, they're in the retail business. So we might drop off millions and millions of liters of water at an Air Force base, which we've done, or at different distribution centers. The states have to take that water or the other commodities involved, meals, and they have to push it down into the local communities and then distribute it to the people who need it. And so that distribution effort requires a lot of time, coordination and logistics expertise. And that's what Brock Long is bringing to the table.

MAJOR GARRETT: Before we leave this topic to talk about other issues, how do you do that when the water is 12 inches high, 18 inches high, four feet high? Do you have enough boats? Do you have enough basic equipment to talk about this distribution chain you just described? Because if you don't, I'm not sure how people get to where they need to get.

TOM BOSSERT: So the men and women at FEMA coordinate the men and women across our government, federal, state, and local. And I have every bit of confidence in every single one of those men and women. Now, what they'll do is exert their best effort. What we'll see now are people that thought, "Well, maybe I'll hunker down for a day or two, and then when the storm passes I'll be okay."

The problem now they're finding is they open up their door and they're flooded, and they're going to be in their home for another two, three, four, five days. Now they realize, "I'm in trouble and I have to get out." So what we're doing now isn't just informing them. Now I'd like to influence and inspire.

Okay, so to influence them there are messages going out by responsible emergency managers, for instance, to tell people in serious flood harm in the path of these rising waters, to not just go to the second floor of your home. You end up trapped up there, you end up trapped in your attic.

You want to get out of your home. If you have to, get onto your roof if your water levels are that high. But make sure you find a way to get out of that home, and don't try to stick out a bad decision. To fix a bad haircut you don't keep cutting. Make sure that you take advantage of the resources that are there. And the men and women of the federal government, state and local governments, and all the volunteers will come together. It's really what makes America great right now.

MAJOR GARRETT: Before the president signed his major disaster declaration, he pardoned Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In what way does that pardon reinforce the president's support that he always calls for for law and order? What is law and order about pardoning a sheriff who was contempted - who was convicted of criminal contempt of court for defying a federal court order?

TOM BOSSERT: Yeah, I think the president weighed the totality of the circumstances and the sheriff's history of service, both in the military and to the law enforcement community, and decided that the 80-something year old man with his history and record of service deserved clemency at this point. That was a very unique and personal decision the president took, and he made that decision on Friday night. I don't think that took up more than a minute of his time on Friday night, because without having talked to him--

MAJOR GARRETT: The Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said he did that to hide the pardon, because Hurricane Harvey was such an important news event.

TOM BOSSERT: No, well, he's clearly wrong.

MAJOR GARRETT: And when you say weigh the totality of experiences, Senator McCain and others have said this contradicts the rule of law, that there is no totality of circumstances. The president, at minimum, should've let the process play itself out. And I believe that was the advice he received from White House lawyers. Why didn't he?

TOM BOSSERT: No, I understand that that's their position, and I have a great deal of respect for Senator McCain and others. But clearly clemency is within the body of law that he is referring to, and the president and other presidents have that legal authority to issue that kind of clemency, and he did.

And as I made a point earlier today to some other questioners, this is something that previous presidents have done. It's always quite controversial when this happens. There's legitimate questions, but at this point it's pretty straightforward.

MAJOR GARRETT: White House Homeland Security Advisor, Tom Bossert. I know you're focused on the hurricane, thank you very much for coming in and updating our audience.

TOM BOSSERT: Thank you, Major.

MAJOR GARRETT: We'll be back in a moment. Please stay with us.