The story of Kayla Mueller — her life, her abduction and her parents' continued grief — has become linked to the Nov. 3 presidential election as her parents, Carl and Marsha Mueller, have become strong advocates of President Donald Trump.
In recent months, Carl and Marsha have grown more vocal about their support of the president. In August, they appeared at the 2020 Republican National Convention and attended Wednesday's vice presidential debate as guests of Mike Pence. (Their advocacy dates back to 2016, when Carl spoke at a Trump rally.)
The Mueller's relationship with Trump and Pence stems from the aftermath of the killing of their daughter, who was declared dead by the Islamic State in 2015.
Her body has never been recovered and her family has long argued that the Obama administration, then in power when Kayla was abducted, did not do enough to rescue her despite Obama authorizing an unsuccessful raid in 2014.
Kayla Mueller’s Story
The 26-year-old Kayla worked with humanitarian organizations in India, Israel and the Palestinian territories, before moving to Turkey to offer support to Syrian refugees.
“We thought she had a lot of potential, so we thought she could do more than volunteer,” a director of one group told The Arizona Republic in 2016. “You get that kind of energy when people know what they’re talking about, when you sense that sense of motivation, their enthusiasm. Her willingness to do something."
In August 2013, she crossed into Syria from Turkey, the Republic reported. Soon afterward, she was abducted by ISIS while leaving a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Syria. While in ISIS custody, she sent letters to her family, some of which have since been made public.
In one, she wrote that she was "completely unharmed + healthy (put on weight in fact)" and had been "treated w/ the utmost respect + kindness."
Though then-President Obama did authorize a raid to rescue Kayla and other hostages, it was eventually determined they had already been moved. As a result, the hostages couldn't be saved at the time.
"We devoted enormous resources and always devote enormous resources to freeing captives or hostages anywhere in the world," Obama told BuzzFeed News in 2015.
Kayla remained missing for a year and a half before ISIS said in February 2015 she had been killed in Syria as a result of Jordanian airstrikes.
As reported by The New York Times, ISIS announced that Kayla had died in an airstrike. Weeks later, however the wife of one of the lieutenants of leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi alleged that she had actually been executed on his orders.
U.S. officials, along with her parents, officially confirmed Kayla's death in February 2015.
National Security Council spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan told reporters the intelligence community had authenticated information concerning her death.
"We are heartbroken to share that we've received confirmation that Kayla Jean Mueller has lost her life," Mueller's parents, along with her brother, Eric, said in a statement at the time.
Once her death was confirmed by officials, Obama offered harsh words for those responsible.
"No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla's captivity and death," the president said in a statement.
Then-Vice President Joe Biden also expressed condolences, writing in a statement posted to Twitter, "Deeply moved by the life of Kayla Mueller. Our nation is stronger than any enemy can understand."
The whereabouts of Kayla's remains are still uncertain, more than five years later, though her family has made great pains to attempt to find out more — even going so far as to meet with the wife of one of her captors to gain clarity.
The Death of Her Captor
Years after her death, the Muellers found a bit of solace in the death of her captor.
Trump, 74, announced in October 2019 that al-Baghdadi — who officials say raped Kayla while she was held captive, during which she was also tortured — had been killed in a military mission.
His national security adviser, Robert O'Brien, later said that the military operation resulting in the death of al-Baghdadi was named after Kayla.
Her Parents’ Criticism of the Obama Administration
Obama met with Kayla's parents following the announcement of her death, to offer condolences in-person while making a scheduled visit to Arizona.
In the years since, Carl and Marsha have openly expressed their frustrations with Obama's handling of their daughter abduction and death, ultimately finding a more receptive audience with Trump.
They have also chafed at the U.S. government's constraints against paying ransom for hostages, a policy that Obama acknowledged can be painful to understand and which was partially revised after Kayla died.
The Mueller family's criticism became a talking point in this week's debate, with Vice President Pence arguing that the Obama administration didn't do enough to save Kayla.
“The reality is that when Joe Biden was vice president, we had an opportunity to save Kayla Mueller,” Pence said. “It breaks my heart to reflect on it, but the military came into the Oval Office and presented a plan. They said they knew where Kayla was.”
In a response to Pence's claims, Sen. Kamala Harris spoke directly to the Muellers, saying,"I know about your daughter's case and I am so sorry … What happened to her is awful, and it should have never happened. And I know Joe feels the same way. And I know President Obama feels the same way."
What the Muellers Have Said About Trump
The Muellers have become increasingly vocal supporters of Trump's administration since al-Baghdadi's death.
"Let me just say this: Kayla should be here," Carl Mueller said during the couple's RNC speech. "If Donald Trump had been president when Kayla was captured, she would be here today."
That support was further made evident in the couples' appearance at the vice presidential debate in October.
According to a pool report, the Muellers traveled back to their Arizona home from the debate aboard Air Force 2, where they deplaned alongside Pence and Second Lady Karen Pence, said their goodbyes and then headed to a portrait unveiling in honor of their daughter.
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