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Biden debate prep fuels false and misleading claims about body doubles and drugs

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, left, speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, June 9, 2024, and President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 4, 2024. (AP) Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, left, speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, June 9, 2024, and President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 4, 2024. (AP)

Republican presidential candidate, former President Donald Trump, left, speaks at a campaign rally in Las Vegas, June 9, 2024, and President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 4, 2024. (AP)

Sara Swann
By Sara Swann June 26, 2024

If Your Time is short

  • President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump prepared differently for the first presidential debate of 2024. Biden spent a week at Camp David strategizing with advisers; Trump remained on the campaign trail.

  • Trump and his allies are pushing false and unsubstantiated claims that Biden cannot debate Trump on his own and needs performance-enhancing drugs or a body double.

  • Experts said that historically, presidential candidates have taken several days to prepare for debates. Finding this time can be particularly important for incumbents, experts said.

President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump will take the stage June 27 for the first presidential debate of the 2024 election. But some conservative politicians, pundits and social media users are pushing unfounded claims it won’t actually be Biden behind the lectern — or if it is, it’ll be Biden in an altered state.

"The man on the stage that night will not be Joe Biden and clearly the podiums play an important roll in their plan," a blue check X user posted June 21, misspelling "role" and referring to Biden winning CNN’s coin toss and deciding to pick lectern placement over speaking order.

The false conspiracy theory that Biden and other well-known figures use professional impersonators as stand-ins for public appearances has circulated for years. But in the lead-up to the debate, the body-double conspiracy theory is one of a number of claims that aim to paint Biden as incapable of debating Trump without the help of a stand-in or, as Trump suggested, being "jacked up" on drugs.

The narrative is in line with attacks from the popular conservative X account RNC Research and other Trump supporters who have spent weeks circulating video clips of Biden that seem to show him declining cognitively, but omit fuller context about Biden’s actions. This is also not the first time Trump has attacked his Democratic competitor before a debate.

Biden, 81, has dedicated the better part of a week to preparing for the debate, the first either candidate has participated in since 2020. Trump, 78, said holding rallies in the days ahead of the debate is his best debate prep strategy.

Experts on U.S. politics said historically presidential candidates have typically taken several days to prepare for a debate, which can be particularly important for incumbents.

Baseless ‘body double’ claim rooted in QAnon 

Users on X and Instagram shared a video clip from the conservative podcast Valuetainment in which one co-host said body doubles have "progressed" so much that these stand-ins can now give speeches.

PolitiFact and other news outlets have repeatedly fact-checked false claims that Biden employs a body double or that video footage shows a masked impersonator instead of the real Biden. Some believers of this conspiracy theory point to photos and videos of Biden that were taken years apart as evidence. But Biden’s aging and wrinkles aren’t proof he’s been replaced.

The fact-free notion that powerful leaders have body doubles was a frequent claim among QAnon conspiracy theorists who helped shape the 2020 election and believe that the world is controlled by a "deep state" with ties to pedophilia.

Biden preparation strategy generates unsupported claims

Biden has gathered with his team at Camp David in Maryland since the night of June 20, his calendar blocked off to other events as, according to news reports, he practiced for the 90-minute faceoff with Trump.

Trump supporters used the prep time as an opportunity to bolster Trump’s unsupported claims about Biden’s capacity to debate.

"Biden — on an intense doping regimen at Camp David — hasn’t been seen for days," wrote RNC Research in a June 22 X post, resharing images of Trump on the campaign trail.

Another X post viewed more than 3.8 million times claimed June 23 Biden is being isolated "to not only dial in his medication, but they also shift his sleep cycle," so that he can give a strong performance at the debate.

By June 24, Rep. Ronny Jackson, R-Texas, wrote a letter calling on Biden to submit to a drug test before taking the stage in Atlanta for the CNN-moderated event. And Trump wrote the same day on Truth Social that he would "immediately" submit to one. A Trump adviser told The Washington Post Biden "will be highly prepared and alert on debate night" because of a "perfectly calibrated dosage."

On June 25, Fox News host Sean Hannity polled viewers on which version of Biden they thought would appear at the debate: "jacked-up Joe" or "confused/cognitively impaired."

None of them cited evidence that Biden is using medication to help him.

Biden’s campaign dismissed the claims as falsehoods. In a statement to The Washington Post, Biden campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt said Trump and his allies "are resorting to desperate, obviously false lies."

Prep time is common ahead of presidential debates

History shows presidential candidates commonly set aside time to prepare for debates, especially when they are incumbents.

Many presidential candidates seek to avoid the kind of fallout then-Republican presidential nominee Richard Nixon experienced in 1960 following the first televised presidential debate, said Jon Marshall, a media historian and associate professor at Northwestern University. Kennedy entered the debate rested and prepared; Nixon continued campaigning and, on TV, "appeared tired and uncomfortable when the debate began."

Kennedy’s performance is often lauded as being pivotal in helping him win.

In 1996, then-President Bill Clinton set aside "most of a week" for his first debate as an incumbent, former White House speechwriter Michael Waldman wrote in an article for the Brennan Center for Justice, where he serves as president.

Incumbent presidents often go into their first debates "rusty" and "cocooned," Waldman wrote. Former Presidents Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and even Trump gave underwhelming performances in their first presidential debates as incumbents, he said.

Robert Rowland, a University of Kansas professor of communications studies, said what’s "more out-of-the-ordinary is that Trump is really not doing any kind of formal debate preparation."

Incumbent presidents and challengers typically "take debates very seriously and allocate several days to the preparation process," Rowland said.

Although Trump has floated the notion that Biden needs performance-enhancing drugs to perform during the debate, he has also described Biden as "a worthy debater".

Rowland said this tactical change to characterize Biden as formidable is part of a strategy to "lower expectations."

"And at the same time, he’s trying to explain that if Biden does well, it’s because of some medication, etc., and still maintain his attack that Biden has lost his cognitive skill," Rowland said.

Misleading claims about Biden unable to debate Trump on his own are not new

This election cycle is not the first time Trump and his supporters have sought to cast aspersions on Biden’s debate performance.

In 2020, Trump also called on Biden to take a drug test, which the Biden campaign laughed off. Trump also employed this tactic in 2016, when he suggested his then-Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, was taking drugs ahead of that year’s debates.

Also in 2020, Trump and his campaign said Biden sought the use of an earpiece ahead of the first presidential debate that year. Biden’s campaign dismissed the claim, saying the Trump team was "lying."

The claim resurfaced after 2020’s first presidential debate: Social media users claimed video footage proved Biden wore a wire or earpiece at the debate. PolitiFact rated these claims Pants on Fire.

At least one other president also faced accusations of debate foul play.

In 2004, there was speculation that then-President George W. Bush received offstage help during that year’s presidential debate against Democratic nominee John Kerry because a photo showed a rectangular bulge on Bush’s back.

Although some people claimed Bush was wearing some kind of electronic device at the debate, Bush’s campaign said there was nothing under his suit jacket. Bush himself attributed the bulge to "a poorly tailored shirt."

PolitiFact Researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

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Our Sources

Phone interview with Robert Rowland, a professor of communications studies at the University of Kansas, June 25, 2024

Email interview with Jon Marshall, a media historian and associate professor at Northwestern University, June 25, 2024

Email interview with Wayne Steger, political science professor at DePaul University, June 25, 2024

PolitiFact, "No, this photo doesn’t show a John Fetterman body double. Here’s why.," March 27, 2023

PolitiFact, "Altered image fuels unfounded claims that President Joe Biden has a ‘body double’," May 3, 2023

PolitiFact, "That White House Visitors Center photo looks like Joe Biden, because it is of Joe Biden," March 9, 2023

PolitiFact, "No, this video doesn’t prove Biden has a body double," Sept. 7, 2022

PolitiFact, "That’s no masked impersonator. It’s really President Joe Biden.," April 27, 2023

PolitiFact, "No, this image doesn’t show Princess Kate’s double," March 21, 2024

PolitiFact, "‘Cheap fake’ videos, and the phrase itself, take 2024 election’s center stage," June 21, 2024

PolitiFact, "Two-year old video claims to show Biden body double, but offers no evidence," Sept. 29, 2023

PolitiFact, "Don’t confuse President Joe Biden with Leatherface; claims he’s wearing a ‘skin mask’ are unfounded," Sept. 13, 2023

PolitiFact, "Was someone in a Joe Biden mask at the State of the Union? No, It was Biden himself," Feb. 10, 2023

PolitiFact, "What is QAnon, the baseless conspiracy spilling into US politics?," Aug. 27, 2020

PolitiFact, "Biden did not wear a wire during the first presidential debate," Sept. 30, 2020

PolitiFact, "Biden didn’t tweet this, or wear an earpiece during the debate," Oct. 5, 2020

Reuters, "Claims that a ‘body double’ got COVID-19 booster instead of Biden are false, use digitally altered photo," Oct. 6, 2021

Reuters, "Fact check: Biden ‘skintone mismatch’ in CNBC interview is due to lighting, not body double or deepfake," Oct. 7, 2020

Politico, "Playbook: Trump and Biden’s dueling debate prep strategies," June 23, 2024

The Associated Press, "Presidential debate: How Biden and Trump are preparing differently," June 21, 2024

The New York Times, "Inside Biden’s Presidential Debate Prep at Camp David," June 24, 2024

CNN, "Why Trump is suddenly talking up Biden after months of slamming his cognitive capacity," June 24, 2024

CNN, "Trump gets the final word at CNN debate after coin flip," June 21, 2024

CNN, "Opinion: What I learned helping Reagan prepare for the 1980 presidential debates," Sept. 20, 2020 

ABC News, "Ahead of debate, Trump escalates calls for Biden drug tests, accusations of CNN bias," June 25, 2024

Fox News, "Exclusive: Trump takes debate prep to campaign trail, calls it a winning strategy," June 23, 2024

The Washington Post, "Trump keeps baselessly claiming that Biden will be on drugs at debate," June 26, 2024

The Washington Post, "‘The president thinks his best case is made in urine’: Biden campaign mocks Trump’s drug-testing demand," Sept. 28, 2020

Politico, "Biden camp clapback: Trump’s best debate case ‘made in urine’," Sept. 27, 2020

The Guardian, "Clinton may have taken performance-enhancing drugs before debate – Trump," Oct. 16, 2016

NBC News, "Here's how the candidates and their teams have prepared for their first debate," Sept. 29, 2020

CNN, "How Hillary Clinton took debate prep seriously," Sept. 26, 2016

The New York Times, "Debacle: What Al Gore’s First Debate Against George W. Bush Can Teach Hillary Clinton," Sept. 25, 2016

The New York Times, "The Mystery of the Bulge in the Jacket," Oct. 9, 2004

Salon, "NASA photo analyst: Bush wore a device during debate," Oct. 30, 2004

Roll Call, "President Joe Biden’s Public Schedule, accessed June 26, 2024

Rep. Ronny Jackson, "Rep. Jackson Sends Letter Demanding Biden Take a Drug Test Before and After the Presidential Debate," June 24, 2024

Brennan Center for Justice, "How the Presidential Debate Can Serve the Public," June 25, 2024

Hannity on Fox News archived video clip, June 25, 2024

YouTube, "Valuetainment podcast - "Is That a Mask?" - Does Joe Biden Have a Body Double," June 13, 2024

YouTube, "Forbes Breaking News - FULL RALLY: Trump Tees Off On Biden And Touts Record On Border At Philadelphia Campaign Rally," June 22, 2024

X post, June 21, 2024

X post (archived), June 24, 2024

X post, June 15, 2024

RNC Research, X post, June 20, 2024

RNC Research, X post, June 22, 2024

Donald Trump, Truth Social post, June 24, 2024

Rep. Byron Donalds, R-Fla., X post, June 23, 2024

Instagram post, June 16, 2024

Instagram post, June 21, 2024

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Biden debate prep fuels false and misleading claims about body doubles and drugs