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Jose Andres Says Killed Aid Workers Were Systematically Targeted; Judge Denies A New Trump Motion To Delay New York Hush Money Trial; Taiwan Rocked By Its Strongest Earthquake In 25 Years; Space Shuttle Columbia: The Final Flight Airs Sunday At 9PM ET/PT. Aired 6- 7p ET

Aired April 03, 2024 - 18:00   ET



JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Reese is predicted to be a top ten pick in the WNBA draft on April 15th on Monday.

16.1 million viewers watched Reese compete in what we now know was her final collegiate game. LSU's loss to Iowa, the most watched women's college basketball game in the history of the world.

The news continues now on CNN. I will see you tomorrow.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN HOST: Happening now, breaking news, Chef Jose Andres is speaking out about the killing of seven aid workers for his food charity in Gaza accusing Israel of systematically targeting them. The World Central Kitchen founder sharing powerful warnings about the war and the humanitarian in crisis he's likening to a real-life hunger games.

Also breaking one of Donald Trump's newest attempts to delay his first criminal trial was just denied. Standby for details as we're also following new fireworks in the Trump classified documents case, the presiding judge under fire right now by the special counsel.

Plus, we are tracking the death and damage assessments after the strongest earthquake to hit Taiwan in a quarter century. CNN is on the scene as rescue crews race to the rubble holding out hope of finding survivors.

Welcome to our viewers here in the United States and around the world. I'm Wolf Blitzer. You're in The Situation Room.

We begin tonight with Chef Jose Andres, the founder of the World Central Kitchen, fervently speaking out about the Israeli attack that killed seven aid workers from his organization.

Our Brian Todd has more from the impassioned interview.


BRIAN TODD, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Tonight, the 54-year-old founder of World Central Kitchen slamming the Israeli military for the attack that killed seven of the group's aid workers in Gaza. JOSE ANDRES, WORLD CENTRAL KITCHEN: They were target systematically car by car.

TODD: Celebrity Chef Jose Andres, in a jarring interview with Reuters, describes how the vehicles in the team's convoy were fired on.

ANDRES: They attacked the first car. We have a feeling they were able to escape safely, because it was an armored vehicle. They were to move in the second one. Again, this one was hit. They were able move to the third one.

TODD: Andres says his team tried to communicate with the Israel Defense Forces at that moment.

ANDRES: In the chaos of moment, whatever happened, to try to be telling IDF that, what are they doing, that they are targeting us in at a de-conflicting zone, in an area controlled by IDF, them knowing that was our teams moving on that route.

TODD: Regarding Israeli claims that the attack was a mistake and unintentional, Andres brushed back fiercely.

ANDRES: This was not just a bad luck situation where, oops, we dropped the bomb in the wrong place or -- no. This was over 1.5, 1.8 kilometers with a very defined humanitarian convoy that had signs in the top, in the roof, a very colorful logo that we are obviously very proud of, but that's very clear who we are and what we do. It seems that what is happening is like true Hunger Games. This has to end.

TODD: Andres went after the leadership of Israel and the U.S.

ANDRES: We are letting the people of Palestine down. U.S. must do more. They need to understand that this was not by somebody that is above law and order that decided, used to kill us because I don't know, maybe because I did a tweet that was very strong against President Netanyahu.

TODD: Andres repeatedly rejected Israeli and U.S. claims that the strikes on his team were not deliberate.

ANDRES: Even if we were no in coordination with the IDF, not democratic country and not military can be targeting civilians and humanitarians, especially when the technology today allows you to know things in ways not too long ago was not possible.

Those drones have eyes on everything that moves in Gaza. I've been there. These drones nonstop flying above you, it's nothing that move that IDF doesn't know. But, said that, even nobody should be targeting ever humanitarian organizations and civilians continuously.

TODD: Asked if World Central Kitchen will start its operations again in Gaza, Chef Andres said their work is, quote, halted but that they're analyzing the situation hour by hour to figure out how to keep doing the work.

And in a pointed message to the Israeli prime minister -- ANDRES: I will tell to Prime Minister Netanyahu 200 humanitarians have died already.


Tens of thousands of civilians have died. I'm so sorry, but I think one humanitarian life is one too many. One children is one too many.


TODD (on camera): Again, regarding this attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israeli forces, quote, unintentionally struck innocent people. The IDF chief of staff, Lieutenant General Herzi Halevi, said the attack was a, quote, grave mistake. Other Israeli officials have said the incident is being investigated at the highest levels. Wolf?

BLITZER: All right. Brian Todd reporting for us, Brian, thank you.

Meanwhile, Israel is blaming, quote, misidentification for the attack and insisting the IDF had no intention of harming the relief workers.

Let's go to CNN's Jeremy Diamond. He's joining us live from Jerusalem right now. Jeremy, several Israeli officials have made public statements about the strike.

JEREMY DIAMOND, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, they certainly are, Wolf. Expressions of regret coming not only from the Israeli prime minister, but also from Israel's top general, Herzi Halevi, the chief of staff of the Israeli military, not only issuing a public apology, but also calling what happened here a grave mistake.


LT. GEN. HERZI HALEVI, ISRAELI CHIEF OF STAFF: I want to be very clear, the strike was not carried out with the intention of harming WCK aid workers. It was a mistake that followed a misidentification at night during a war in very complex conditions. It shouldn't have happened.


DIAMOND: And now, Wolf, even as the Israeli military's chief of staff says this was a misidentification and that an investigation is going to be carried out, so many questions still remain about how this aid convoy could have possibly been misidentified when the World Central Kitchen says that they informed the Israeli military of the convoy's route, when there were logos clearly marking the World Central Kitchen on top of these vehicles, so many questions here that still remain.

But what is very clear is that the work of aid workers in Gaza remains increasingly important, but also increasingly dangerous. 190 humanitarian aid workers have been killed since the start of this conflict in Gaza more than in any other conflict annually over the last 20 years.

BLITZER: Jeremy Diamond in Jerusalem for us, Jeremy, thank you very much.

Chef Jose Andres says he's spoken with President Biden about the aid convoy attack. Chef Andres urging the United States to take a very different approach to Israel's war in Gaza. Listen to this.


ANDRES: I spoke to President Biden yesterday. President Biden made a statement, which seems already a harder stand, but it's very complicated to understand that we are going to be sending -- America is going to be sending his Navy and his military to do humanitarian work, when at the same time weapons provided by America, not to defend Israel itself from missile attacks, but use weapons that are killing civilians in this moment.


BLITZER: Let's get some more right now from CNN's Kayla Tausche. She's joining us from the White House.

Kayla, President Biden says he's outraged about this Israeli attack. How is that playing out as far as his policies towards Israel right now?

KAYLA TAUSCHE, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, I'm told that sentiment has permeated conversations between the two governments at basically all levels since that strike was carried out, that the U.S. has communicated to Israel's government in no uncertain terms that specific changes must be made to the de-confliction processes.

One official telling me either the information about the convoy's location didn't reach the targeting team or it was disregarded by the IDF, either way it's a problem.

In response to some of those conversations, Israel's defense minister has said that they will be setting up a situation room and encouraging open and transparent communication about the location of aid workers as a result of this.

But even so, there are still a lot of very serious questions to be asked by the U.S. government. And the format for those questions going on right now will be that conversation happening tomorrow between President Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, where I'm told the themes will be anger and accountability and on a leader- to-leader level conversation, some of those very serious concerns are going to be presented to Bibi Netanyahu.

Now, as far as the policies that the administration is pursuing toward Israel, the sharp rhetoric that we've seen coming out of the administration this week, both privately and publicly, now appears increasingly divorced from what the administration's stated policy on Israel is.

The White House was asked repeatedly in recent days whether there would be consequences for Israel and conditions placed on military aid as a result of these strikes on civilians. And here's how NSC spokesman John Kirby answered that question again today.


JOHN KIRBY, WHITE HOUSE NATIONAL SECURITY COMMUNICATIONS ADVISER: While we make no bones about the fact that we have certain issues about some of the way things are being done, we also make no bones about the fact that Israel is going to continue to have American support for the fight that they're in to eliminate the threat from Hamas.



TAUSCHE: And yet the chorus is growing for the U.S. to place conditions on those aides from outside groups. We will see whether there is any change in tack after that phone call tomorrow, Wolf.

BLITZER: We will see. Kayla Tausche at the White House, thank you.

Just ahead, the breaking news in Donald Trump's hush money criminal case, why the judge isn't buying Trump's latest argument for delaying the trial.

I will also go live to Taiwan for an update on the historic earthquake there as powerful aftershocks rattle the island.


BLITZER: There's breaking news in Donald Trump's criminal hush money case in New York, Trump losing a new bid to delay the trial now set to begin 12 days from now.


Let's go to CNN's Chief Legal Affairs Correspondent Paula Reid. What do we know, Paula?

PAULA REID, CNN CHIEF LEGAL AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, the judge overseeing Trump's criminal case in Manhattan, he has rejected this last minute bid to delay the case by arguing that it should wait until after the Supreme Court rules on Trump's presidential immunity claim in the federal January 6th case.

Now, the New York case, that's about allegations. He falsified business records to cover up an affair with a porn star. So, it's unlikely presidential immunity would apply. And the judge noted that the lawyers, they had months to file this motion. They only did so a few weeks before this case is scheduled to begin.

But this is just one of a series of moves the Trump team has made to try to get the case delayed. But right now, the case is scheduled to start on April 15th. And it could be the only case, criminal case, that Trump faces before the November election. The January 6th case is on hold, waiting for the Supreme Court decision. The Georgia case has been delayed by efforts to disqualify Fani Willis.

And then down in Florida, the judge overseeing the classified documents case has drawn things out with a series of unusual moves. And last night, the special counsel made it clear he's had it.


JACK SMITH, SPECIAL COUNSEL: We very much look forward to presenting our case to a jury of citizens in the southern district of Florida.

REID (voice over): A trial in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case appears highly unlikely to happen before the 2024 election and Special Counsel Jack Smith expressing frustration with Judge Aileen Cannon. In a new filing late Tuesday, Smith's team said Cannon had ordered briefings based on a fundamentally flawed legal premise that had no basis in law or fact.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: My sincere thanks to the president for the honor of this nomination.

REID: Prosecutors harshly criticizing the Trump-appointed judge's request for hypothetical jury instructions. She asked both sides to take into account the former president's claim that he had broad authority to take classified documents under the Presidential Records Act.

DONALD TRUMP (R), FORMER U.S. PRESIDENT, 2024 PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: Whatever documents the president decides to take with him, he has the right to do so. It's an absolute right.

REID: The post-Watergate law covers what documents belong to the government after an administration leaves the White House. But prosecutors have repeatedly said that law is not relevant because Trump is accused of obstruction and storing highly classified material in a bathroom in other unsecure locations at his Florida estate.

Prosecutors also point out that telling a jury that Trump had the authority to take records he wanted from the White House would make it nearly impossible to secure a conviction. Prosecutors insist that legal premise is wrong and a jury instruction that reflects that premise would distort the trial.

But Trump's attorneys, who are also asked to weigh in here, suggested that the judge tell jurors Trump was authorized to possess a category of documents defined as personal records, both during and after his term in office.

The idea that classified documents belonged to Trump, Smith's team said, is pure fiction.

JEREMY FOGEL, FORMER FEDERAL JUDGE: I was a trial judge for 37 years. I have never seen an order like this.

REID: Former Federal Judge Jeremy Fogel says the government will likely appeal. FOGEL: If he makes that decision and then the case goes to trial and then he's acquitted, as he certainly would be with that instruction, the government has no recourse. There's double jeopardy.

REID: But an appeal will likely further delay the trial, something Trump has been seeking in all his criminal cases.


REID (on camera): Our team went through the entire docket in this case and found that Judge Cannon still has over a dozen outstanding motions to decide, and those include nine motions to dismiss, three other major defense motions trying to attack the case, also a decision about how much witness information should be kept under seal, and the biggest outstanding decision of all, when will this case go to trial. It's penciled in for late May.

It's been over a month since she had arguments or both sides weighed in on how long they think the case should be delayed. But as of now, Wolf, it doesn't appear that this case will go before the November election.

BLITZER: Very significant. Paula Reid, thank you very much.

I want to bring in our legal analysts right now, Elie Honig and Carrie Cordero. Elie, how rare is it to see this filing from the special council taking a very aggressive tone?

ELIE HONIG, CNN SENIOR LEGAL ANALYST: Well, Wolf, it's exceedingly rare to see a prosecutor express this type of frustration so directly, so unapologetically. And I have to say, I understand to an extent where Jack Smith's coming from.

When I was a prosecutor, I had occasional moments when I was very frustrated with judges. Ordinarily, what you do is you take a deep breath and you take it down a notch or two. Jack Smith apparently has not done that.

But the reason he's so frustrated here is because Judge Cannon seems like she's entertaining the idea of instructing the jury at trial on this Presidential Records Act defense, which as Paula, I think just very nicely laid out, lacks basis in fact or law.


And the other source of frustration for Jack Smith that's palpable is he can feel the trial date slipping away. It is getting less and less likely every day to the point where it's almost an impossibility now that this case will be tried before the election.

BLITZER: Very significant. Carrie, legal experts, as you know, they have criticized Judge Cannon's approach and called her inexperienced. Do you agree with those concerns that are boiling over right now by Judge Cannon's handling of this case? CARRIE CORDERO, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I generally don't like from any quarters sort of the personal criticisms of judges. All judges are new to the bench at some point. It doesn't necessarily mean that they're incapable of handling the matters that come before them.

She has in this particular case ruled favorably for the former president a number of times, even on issues that in these types of cases should have been a little more straightforward. Although I would note that not every decision that she has made has gone in the former president's favor.

On this particular set of requests for jury instructions, she has gone outside of the bounds of what we normally would see in a case involving classified information and a prosecution on those issues.

BLITZER: Elie, all that being said, is this still -- is this filing still a very risky move for the special counsel, Jack Smith

HONIG: Well, so I think Jack Smith did the right thing in this filing. He said, hey, judge, you should not give this presidential records act instruction to the jury because it lacks basis in fact or law. What would be risky, Wolf, and Jack Smith more than hints at this in the, in the filing is that if he loses on this, he suggests he will appeal.

Now, if he wants to appeal, he has to do it before the trial. Because once the trial starts, once you get to a jury, it's going to be double jeopardy. Prosecutors cannot appeal a not guilty verdict. If there's a not guilty verdict, it's over, everyone goes home. So, Jack Smith is trying to anticipate that.

But if he does file an appeal on this, A, we don't know if he'd win, I suspect he might well win, but, B, that would completely wipe out any chance of getting this case tried in 2024.

BLITZER: Interesting. Carrie, even if the special counsel is frustrated, judges have nearly carte blanche authority to manage their dockets. So, do you see this trial being set anytime soon?

CORDERO: I don't think so. I mean, I take Elie's point that it's getting less and less likely that this trial actually happens before the election. You know, first, just because it involves classified information, that automatically involves an entire set of processes that generally slow things down in any national security case.

Then layered on top of it, you have the fact that it's involving a former president who has made motions to dismiss on every possible conceivable opportunity that he has. And then now we also have this judge who is proceeding in an unusual way, because if the jury instructions that she wants to see go forward, and on one angle of them, one of the requests that she had would effectively shut down the entire case and make the prosecution impossible to win on for the prosecutor.

So, there really is an imperative that the prosecutors get clarity from her on her interpretation of the law and have the opportunity to appeal. And if there's an appeal, then this absolutely will slow down further.

Carrie and Ellie, thanks to both of you very much.

Coming up, new polling on Biden versus Trump in seven critical presidential battleground states, what the numbers reveal about voter discontent and how that's weighing on President Biden's re-election bid.



BLITZER: A new poll out tonight drives home the very close race between President Biden and former President Donald Trump in seven swing states that could decide their November rematch.

CNN Political Director David Chalian is breaking down the numbers for us. David, tell us more about this Wall Street Journal poll and what it reveals.

DAVID CHALIAN, CNN POLITICAL DIRECTOR: Yes, Wolf, it is a close race. There's no doubt about that. The Wall street Journal polled these seven states that are going to decide this election, these are the battleground states. And what you see here is that in two of them, Arizona, where Trump has a 5 percentage point lead, 47 percent to 42 percent, and in North Carolina, where he's got a 6 percentage point lead, 49 to 43, those two are Trump leads. Everything else is within the margin of error in Georgia, in Pennsylvania, in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Nevada.

But I just want to say when you look at it overall, it is a slight Trump lead. That's where we are today, about seven months out from Election Day, though, of course, remember, Americans will start voting in about five and a half months.

What's underneath those horse race numbers? Well, a really dismal approval rating of President Joe Biden. He's at 38 percent approval, 60 percent disapprove. That's across all seven of the battleground states.

How does that compare with Trump's approval reading in terms of asking people now how Trump handled the presidency? And this, you see a much more evenly divided nation here, 51 percent approve of way Donald Trump handled his job as president. 47 percent disapprove across these battleground states.

Wolf, what is so important for the Biden campaign is to remind people from their perspective of what they think was a negative four years with Donald Trump in charge, because with time and distance, Americans are not feeling as sour on Trump's handling as the job as they feel today about the current president.


And the economy, always an important factor. Well, this is a trouble sign for the Biden campaign, because across the seven states in this Wall Street Journal poll, only 36 percent say that the strength of the economy is excellent or good, 63 percent, nearly two thirds of Americans in these seven decisive states, say not so good or poor.

But there's a hopeful side here perhaps for the president, or at least a place for them to go to start working on this economic issue. If you ask people over the past year, has your personal financial situation moved in the right direction or wrong direction? What's so interesting is people in these battleground states feel much better about their personal situation than they do when asked broadly about how the strength of the nation's economy is doing.

So, there is opportunity here if people in these battleground states are feeling better about their personal finances than they do broadly for the country. But across all the states on the economy, on immigration, Donald Trump beats Joe Biden only on abortion rights as an issue. Do we see Joe Biden besting Donald Trump in these new numbers? Wolf?

BLITZER: Very interesting, indeed. David Chalian, thank you very much.

Let's get some more on all of this. Joining us, CNN Political Commentators Karen Finney and Scott Jennings.

Karen, let me start with you. These are key battleground states that David was talking about, and they will likely determine the winner of the November election. How alarmed should Democrats be right now about the poor picture it's presenting for President Biden, at least right know?

KAREN FINNEY, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Well, I think we have to take all of these public polls sort of for what they are. They are a snapshot in time. One of things I noticed in the crosstabs of this, these were small sample sizes, about 600 people. So, again, important information. You always want to take it seriously.

But what I found more interesting was, for example, in Wisconsin, despite what The Wall Street Journal poll showed, you also saw about 95,000 people in the Republican primary on Tuesday came out and voted either for Nikki Haley or for Ron DeSantis. And that is, you know, well over the margin that Joe Biden wanted or that Trump wanted in 2016.

So, again, I think we have to also compare that to what is actually happening on the ground when people have the opportunity to vote and pay attention to all of it.

BLITZER: Scott, I want you to take a look at this. Just after Trump left office in 2021, he was viewed unfavorably by voters by nearly two to one. But three years later, these numbers have dramatically improved.

Why do you think that is and is it likely these numbers will change as the Biden campaign tries to remind people about the Trump presidency?

SCOTT JENNINGS, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: His numbers have improved because it's a direct reaction that voters are having to the Biden presidency. It's very unique election. Voters can remember and compare two presidents to each other. And, obviously, look, if we go into the election and Trump's at 51 approval and Biden is at 38 approval, I mean, Donald Trump's going to win the election. If we go into the election and the numbers on the economy don't get better, Trump is likely to win the election.

And so that's what campaigns are for. It's very early. Both of them have soft spots. Obviously, Biden's soft spots are on the progressive left, and in the non-college working class people of America, Trump's are in the suburbs. We see this in all the elections.

But right now, it's a close race, but looking under the hood here, there's no question that Trump is driving this car.

BLITZER: Yes, it's still many months away from November.

But, Karen, as David Chalian outlined, voters view the U.S. economy overall negatively, but they're far rosier, they have a far rosier view when it comes to their own personal finances. Why is that?

FINNEY: Well, a couple things. I mean, actually, we're also seeing among consumer data, people starting to say they are feeling better. So, those two things track. Look, I think, again, we've had several months of continuous job growth. We're seeing wages going up. We are seeing inflation coming down, hopefully stabilizing.

And I also think we have to remember that, as a country, that we are still really hurting from COVID. There have been a couple of really good pieces about the fact that there's a little bit of a sort of COVID hangover and a depression that has followed, and a little bit of a -- people have forgotten a little bit about what's going on the Trump years were like.

So, you know, I think people -- but I think it's important to note that as people start to see it in their own lives, hopefully, that will, and the Biden administration -- folks get out there and tell that contrast story, people will start to feel better more broadly.

BLITZER: Let me get Scott to weigh in. If people see their personal, personal financial situation as moving in the right direction, would you expect their view of the economy overall to improve as well?


JENNINGS: Absolutely. If people believe that food prices are coming down or if the interest rates are come down and it makes it easier to buy a house or buy car, yes, they're going to start to think generally things are getting better in a country. The problem is people don't really feel that way right now and those are the things that are driving people into anxiety about their own personal economic situation.

The grocery store is expensive and it has been expensive and it's expensive under Biden and it was not under Trump. And for a lot of people right now, the American dream of owning a home and owning the car is out of reach. Until those things change, I don't think Biden is going to see any improvement at all.

BLITZER: Yes, go ahead, Karen, very quickly.

FINNEY: Just real quickly, one of the things the president needs to do, to Scott's point, is get out there and continue to hammer away on almost a populist message about the ways in which he is trying to lower costs Because we know, for example, with grocery stores, the big chains are gouging people. That is good territory for him to be driving a message.

BLITZER: Karen Finney, Scott Jennings, guys, thank you very much.

Just ahead, we'll get a live update from Taiwan, which was rocked by its strongest earthquake in 25 years. Details on the race to find survivors in the rubble right after a quick break.



BLITZER: In Taiwan right now, the race is on to find victims buried in the rubble of a powerful 7.4 magnitude earthquake. At least 9 people are dead and more than 900 injured as rescue teams to reach survivors, including 71 workers trapped in two mines.

Our Senior International Correspondent has more.


IVAN WATSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Just before 8:00 A.M. on Wednesday, the ground in Taiwan starts to shake. The island rocked by the most powerful earthquake to hit Taiwan in a quarter century.

In the capital, Taipei, CNN photojournalist John Mees tries to protect his wife and children as the walls of their home lurch back and forth.

An earthquake has just hit, announces the anchor of this morning news show, as she struggles to stay on her feet. But the worst damage is at the epicenter, in the rugged mountains of Hualien County, on the island's east coast.

The 7.4 magnitude earthquake triggers massive landslides authorities say several people were killed by falling rocks.

In the town of Hualien, apartment buildings on the verge of collapse emergency workers in action authorities say they've rescued scores of people from toppled buildings and highway tunnels, but more than 900 people have been injured and rescue teams are still trying to reach others trapped high in the mountains.

The work has continued in Hualien throughout the night. No one is left inside this building, says this firefighter. He adds, people are frightened.

There are constant earthquakes here, says this woman. I've lived here 50 years and never felt one so big. It's really scary.

People in Taiwan are accustomed to feeling the earth shake but rarely with this much destructive force.


WATSON (on camera): Now, Wolf, right now, we're monitoring efforts to rescue more than 70 miners in two separate mines that are believed to be trapped as a result of this deadly and powerful earthquake and we'll update as we learn more about what is happening there.

In the meantime, Taiwan is still being hit by powerful aftershocks, at least 29 recorded in the first 12 hours after the initial earthquake. And the authorities here are predicting that there could be more very powerful aftershocks for the next three to four days.

BLITZER: I'm really worried about those aftershocks. Ivan Watson, stay safe over there. Thank you very much.

Coming up, I'll get reaction to some of today's top stories from U.S. Senator Mark Kelly. My one-on-one interview with the Arizona Democrat, that's next.



BLITZER: It's now been two decades since NASA space shuttle program suffered its second horrific disaster. Back on February 1st, 2003, the Columbia disintegrated as it re-entered the atmosphere, killing all seven astronauts on board.

A new CNN original series reveals how and why the disaster happened, and it features first-hand accounts from people who lived through it all, including former astronaut and now U.S. Senator Mark Kelly.


NARRATOR: Columbia's three main engines draining a half a ton of fuel per second, heading towards a space on the first shuttle mission of the year.

SEN. MARK KELLY (D-AZ): How on TV it looks like you're going up really smoothly? No, not at all. It's kind of -- it's kind of a wild ride and there's a lot of vibration.

My first flight, it was so much I thought to myself, there's something wrong here, cannot possibly feel like this.

ANNOUNCER: Solid rocket booster separation confirmed, guidance now converging, Columbia's onboard computers, commanding the main engine nozzles to gently swivel, aiming the shuttle for a precise target and space for main engine cutoff.


BLITZER: And Senator Mark Kelly is joining us now from his home state of Arizona.

Senator, thanks so much for joining us.

You are one of the first people to arrive on the ground following the Columbia disaster. What were those moments like immediately after this tragedy?

KELLY: Yeah. Wolf, thank you for having me on. I was the first person from NASA to get on the scene in a helicopter and it was one of the worst days of my life. But to lose seven of my very good friends, three of my classmates, you know, folks that are, you know, were doing their job and serving our country and exploring.

And it was sad, it was shocking and it was hard. I mean, I had to recover the bodies of my colleagues and we learned a lot from that mission and from these accidents. You know, Challenger and then Columbia and I think its important for people to watch this documentary.

BLITZER: I think you're absolutely right. I know you knew many of the brave astronauts on board the Columbia. How did this tragedy, Senator, impact you and your fellow astronauts?


KELLY: I knew all of them. Three of them were my classmates and very close friends. We had international astronaut Ilan Ramon from Israel. So this is tragic for Israel as well.

And the way it affects us is it's hard to lose your friends. You served in the Navy for 25 years, and when we lose folks in an airplane or in combat, it's something you've never get over. And that's the same here.

But they were very -- you know, heroic Americans that were working hard trying to do the right thing, trying to move our country ahead and aerospace and exploration, it's something that we do really, really well in this country. And at times we have accidents and it's important to learn from those accidents.

BLITZER: So what changed at NASA after this horrific tragedy?

KELLY: Well, I think one big takeaway from this accident was that a very complicated spacecraft like the space shuttle with a lot of parts, moving parts, moving at their extremes of temperature and pressure. That at times this spacecraft tries to talk to you and it tries to tell you it has a problem. And we should have seen this problem coming.

And we had foam coming off the tank years prior to this, small pieces of foam. Not thinking that it was going to be a major problem and on lift off a big chunk of foam came off and flew right through the leading edge the left wing. And then that caused the disaster on re- entry, we should have seen it coming. We put more processes into place after this. And I think we realized that sometimes a team of people can make bad decisions. You often feel like if you pull the right people together, you're going to get the right answer. That's not always the case. And I tried to take that into my job here now as a -- as a United States senator.

BLITZER: And as a U.S. senator, you've injured produced the bill aimed at strengthening the United States' competitiveness in space. Tell us a little bit about that.

KELLY: Well, I mean, there's a lot we can do here. You know, space and technology, semiconductors is something I've been focused a lot on. But we want to maintain our leading position. We compete with China and Russia and getting things into space. There are adversaries now. I'm really worried about a future conflict that we could have, especially with China and how you know, say he says, now the high ground. And that conflict could lead to direct action in space.

None of us -- none of us want that but it's important to me and it's important to my fellow senators that if we ever wind up going down this road, that we have the -- have the advantage.

BLITZER: Before I let you go, Senator, I quickly want to ask you a couple of questions about some of the important news of the day. As you know, many lawmakers in your Democratic Party have called on President Biden to stop providing offensive weapons to Israel as long as it continues to block humanitarian aid into Gaza.

First of all, do you agree with that especially after this strike that killed seven aid workers from the World Central Kitchen?

KELLY: Yeah. Wolf, I was on the phone with Jose Andres yesterday about this, it's tragic. I was on the phone with the ambassador, the Israeli ambassador, Michael Herzog, today about this and talk to him about how this was reckless.

I used to fly airplanes off of an aircraft carrier are flown in combat. I've dropped bombs in dense urban areas. They need to do a better job at this. They have to. I mean, this is a tragic loss of life.

I was talking to Cindy McCain about this yesterday and today about how hard her job is. And this is just going to make it harder. You know, this is a humanitarian crisis. Israel's got to step up and do a better job here.

BLITZER: Important points said.

Before I let you go, in this new "Wall Street Journal" poll, your home state of Arizona is featured in this poll. Trump leads Biden there by five points in this poll. You see it there, 47 to 42 percent. This is a state that President Biden won back in 2020.

So, four years after rejecting Trump, why do you think Arizona voters now prefer him to President Biden, at least according to this new "Wall Street Journal" poll? KELLY: Yeah, well, I'm not so concerned with public polls. I saw 'em wrong in my race. There's a lot of polling out there.

Joe Biden is going to win Arizona. I'm going to be out there on the campaign trail and others. He's got a good story to tell here on semiconductors, on renewable energy, on bringing down the price of prescription drugs, especially for seniors. He's got a record to run on. He's working to move this country forward.

Donald Trump wants to take us back. He wants to take away rights. I mean, he has said himself that he is responsible for the Dobbs decision for Roe v. Wade going away and I'm confident that Joe Biden is going to win Arizona. He's going to be reelected to a second term.


BLITZER: Arizona, a key battleground state right now.

Senator Mark Kelly, thanks so much for joining us.

And to our viewers, you can see the debut of the CNN original series "Space Shuttle Columbia: The Final Flight" this coming Sunday night, 9:00 p.m. Eastern.

And we'll be right back.


BLITZER: Finally, tonight, a closer look at the seven world central kitchen workers who were killed.

Saifeddin Abutaha was a 25-year-old Palestinian who had been volunteering as a driver with World Central Kitchen. He was the youngest victim of the strike.

A close friend and former colleague remember 43-year-old Australian aid worker Zomi Frankcom, as full of life with a smile that would light up a room.

Thirty-five-year-old worker Damian Sobol had been working nonstop since the Russian invasion of Ukraine, according to his friend and former colleague. He is remembered as one of those guys, you just want to hold onto.

Jacob Flickinger was a dual U.S.-Canadian citizen who had a military background. He leaves behind a partner and a one-year-old son.

John Chapman, James Henderson, and James Kirby were all from the United Kingdom. They worked for World Central Kitchen security team.

May they all rest in peace and may their memories be a blessing.

The news continues on CNN right now.