President Biden spoke to Saudi Arabia's King Salman on Thursday for the first time since taking office—but the conversation was overshadowed by the looming release of a US intelligence report expected to say the 85-year-old king's son ordered the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Biden read the report before speaking to the king, but the White House description of the call was "vague to the extreme" and did not mention Khashoggi or Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the New York Times reports. The White House said Biden "affirmed the importance the United States places on universal human rights and the rule of law." The prince is widely seen as the country's de facto ruler, but the White House said Biden insisted on dealing only with the king, the Times notes.
The White House said Biden also discussed the "longstanding partnership" between the US and Saudi Arabia and praised the kingdom for the recent release of women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul. The AP notes that Biden promised on the campaign trail to make the kingdom a "pariah" over the Khashoggi murder and the White House didn't explain why he took a milder tone with the king. Barbara Plett-Usher at the BBC describes the conversation as a "sensitive call at a sensitive time," noting that with the king in poor health, the 35-year-old crown prince could become the country's ruler in the very near future. Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine said Thursday that sanctions could accompany the release of the report, in a "day of reckoning, but one that’s long overdue." (Read more Saudi Arabia stories.)