Fact Check: Was Joe Biden Caught With Written Instructions at G20?

U.S. President Joe Biden has been scrutinized by many of his critics for his oratory skills, with flubbed lines or misspoken statements often being used to question his competency.

The president was mocked by political opponents and social media users earlier this year for appearing to read out the word "dot" from a website URL on a teleprompter during a White House speech.

While the president has been pictured in the past handling "cheat sheets" and prompts to guide his public appearances—a strategy perhaps designed to temper his self-recognized propensity for slip-ups—the latest incident has revived unevidenced and conspiratorial narratives.

Joe Biden
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks during a meeting about the Federal-State Offshore Wind Implementation Partnership in the Roosevelt Room of the White House June 23, 2022 in Washington, DC. The meeting revealed instructive prompts that were mocked online. Drew Angerer/Getty

The Claim

Several outlets, including the New York Post, and prominent social media accounts picked up on a photo taken during the G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia, which appeared to show detailed instructions relating to the upcoming meeting.

Notes stating, among other points, "YOU will sit at the center" and "YOU will deliver opening remarks (5 minutes)," can be seen on a zoomed-in image of a leaflet held by Biden.

But while some comments were limited to light-hearted teasing and satire, others took on a more conspiratorial tone.

"Biden reading his instructions on how to act from his handlers... Take note of the bold capitalized "YOU"...," one Twitter user wrote.

A Reddit post, published on November 16, 2022, shows a cropped photo of Biden reading from the instructions page. The post is captioned with claims that the president is "taking orders" from "superiors."

The post stated: "Joe Biden is caught again taking orders from his superiors on a piece of paper in big red letters "YOU will sit" and "YOU will deliver opening remarks."

The Facts

The photo of Biden was taken during the G20 summit in Bali, which convened 20 of the world's most economically prosperous nations for a series of talks on global issues.

This year's topics, framed on the theme of "Recover Together, Recover Stronger," included discussions on climate change, the international energy crisis, and digital technology.

A close-up of the photo shows a series of instructions under the title "Opening Remarks for Global Partnership for Infrastructure and Investment G20 Side Event."

Document outlining proceedings at G20 in Bali
US President Joe Biden looks through a document outlining proceedings during an event on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment with his Indonesian and European Commission counterparts on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in Nusa Dua on the Indonesian resort island of Bali on November 15, 2022. Misleading claims about the notes in the document have been shared online. SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images

However, the only prompts in the photos are for when the president was meant to deliver remarks, when to stand for photos, and where to sit at the conference.

In fact, as the caption to the original states, the prompts are contained in a "document outlining proceedings," though it is not clear whether it was put together by Biden staffers or the event organizers (and if it is the latter, whether all participants received a bespoke version).

Regardless, there is no information in the photo that suggests he is being told what to do against his wishes, being instructed what to say at the conference, or being guided by anyone other than himself, his own staffers, or event runners.

The two-day G20 summit is among the most high-profile and influential geopolitical congresses in the world, discussing sensitive and fractious issues, comments from which are shared by news organizations around the world.

An agenda and set of reminders to ensure smooth protocol, aimed at avoiding any faux-pas on the world stage, is a useful precaution for a global leader, whose remarks and actions are intensely scrutinized on a daily basis.

Other photos taken at the event did show far more instructive talking points and subjects for the G20, which included comments on the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment (PG-II), a G7 pledged fund which aims to raise $600 billion "in private and public funds over five years to finance the required infrastructure in developing countries."

One line read "YOU will deliver remarks demonstrating the progress we have made under PG-II to-date."

While this does appear to go beyond etiquette guidance and timings, inviting more speculation, it does not amount to evidence of a conspiracy.

For a start, it appears these directions were guides for the key discussion points on an agenda that's prepared in advance by event runners.

Furthermore, political leaders are often provided with speeches and material they have not written themselves, or necessarily even had direct personal oversight of beforehand. From JFK to Obama, U.S. presidents have notes, cue cards, and other visual aids to get through tough speeches or meetings.

In 2018, former president Donald Trump was photographed with a similarly personalized set of instructions, directing him to say that he was listening in a face-to-face meeting with students and parents affected by school shootings.

The photo, taken by the Associated Press, shows a list of questions including "What would you want me to know about your experience" followed by another prompt stating "I hear you."

A former White House Counsel, who did not wish to be named, told Newsweek that notes like Biden's were "very common, especially in large foreign meetings since they are tightly choreographed with the other attendees."

So while Biden has been mocked before for similar notes or "cheat sheets" telling him where to sit and speak, these are not evidence, in and of themselves, that he is taking directions from some higher, unnamed powers, less so on matters of policy.

Earlier this year, a number of media outlets poked fun at the president for seemingly reading instructions from a teleprompter when, in fact, he had skipped one word that was part of his speech.

Newsweek has contacted the White House for comment.

The Ruling

Needs Context.

Needs Context

While the photo of Biden's meeting protocol is real, the conspiratorial narratives proliferating around the image are entirely unproven or misleading.

The photo doesn't amount to evidence that the president is taking orders from others. The "instructions" are limited to event protocol and do not appear to contain any more detailed speech or remarks.

They are simply useful prompts, likely prewritten by himself or his staff and event organizers, designed to ensure smooth protocol and avoid awkward situations during his attendance at one of the world's most heavily scrutinized conferences.

FACT CHECK BY Newsweek's Fact Check team

Needs Context: The claim requires more information to set it in the appropriate context. The claim as presented may be partly true, but cannot be fully or correctly understood without the right context.
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