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Photo: David T. Foster III/Pool/Getty Images

Mike Pence's guest list for Wednesday's vice presidential debate in Salt Lake City will include the parents of murdered ISIS hostage Kayla Mueller, two senior administration officials with direct knowledge tell Axios.

Why it matters: The decision sheds light on Pence's strategy to target Joe Biden. Mueller's parents, Carl and Marsha, gave perhaps the most heart-wrenching speech of the Republican National Convention. But their remarks were also politically brutal, with Carl Mueller directly blaming the Obama-Biden administration for hiding behind policy and failing to save his daughter's life.

  • The Muellers praised President Trump for authorizing the mission to kill ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi — a mission named to honor Kayla — and Carl even went so far as to say he thought "if Donald Trump had been president when Kayla was captured, she would be here today."

Flashback: A Washington Post deep dive reported in 2015 that some who worked on the rescue mission believed that the White House was at least partly to blame for the failure to bring Mueller back, alleging delays in presenting the plan to Obama.

  • But multiple White House and Pentagon officials, including former national security adviser Susan Rice, told the Post that the process went as fast as it could possibly go given the operation's complexity, and that the hostages may have been moved just days prior to the mission.
  • “I understand the frustrations of folks who are working their hearts out, removed from what goes on in the Pentagon, in the White House, in the State Department. I get that," one official reportedly told the Post. "I think it is heart-breaking that they weren’t there.”

The state of play: One of the sources said they "can't think of a more fitting day to tell Kayla's story" than the day news broke of the transportation to the U.S. of two British ISIS prisoners, who comprise half of a terrorist cell known as "the Beatles."

  • They will face federal charges for allegedly torturing and beheading Western hostages.
  • A Justice Department press release said the two men "engaged in a prolonged pattern of physical and psychological violence" against American hostages, including Mueller and journalist James Foley.

Between the lines: With Kamala Harris set to indict the Trump administration over its handling of the coronavirus pandemic, Pence will try to move the conversation onto more favorable terrain.

Go deeper

Pence says he lacks authority to throw out Electoral College votes

Vice President Mike Pence on Jan. 4. Photo: Megan Varner/Getty Images

Vice President Mike Pence said on Wednesday that he lacked constitutional authority to follow President Trump's wishes to throw out Electoral College votes for President-elect Joe Biden.

Why it matters: Trump has been pressuring Pence to overturn the election results as part of an ongoing attempt to subvert Biden's clear win, which failed to garner evidence or support through various legal battles. Trump will view Pence’s statement as the ultimate act of betrayal.

Trump targets Liz Cheney and other Republicans as "weak" in new escalation of GOP civil war

Photo: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Addressing a huge crowd of loyal supporters south of the White House, President Trump declared that he will never concede to Joe Biden and attacked "weak Republicans" — calling out "the Liz Cheneys of the world" — for failing to support his efforts to overturn the results of the election.

Why it matters: It's a new escalation in Trump's war against the GOP, which has pitted Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and other mainstream Republicans against the most popular figure in the party. Cheney is a member of House Republican leadership, meaning that Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy will likely be forced to respond.

Focus group: Former Trump voters say he should never hold office again

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

"Relief" is the top emotion some swing voters who used to support Donald Trump say they felt as they watched President Biden's swearing-in, followed by "hope."

Why it matters: For voters on the bubble between parties, this moment is less about excitement for Biden or liberal politics than exhaustion and disgust with Trump and a craving for national healing. Most said Trump should be prohibited from ever holding office again.