WASHINGTON — Days after Donald J. Trump launched his presidential campaign in June 2015, James O’Keefe, the conservative disrupter famous for trying to use secret recordings to embarrass liberals and journalists, visited Trump Tower and gave Mr. Trump a preview of his latest hidden camera video intended to undermine Hillary Clinton.
The footage, widely dismissed after it was released some weeks later, showed officials from Mrs. Clinton’s presidential campaign appearing to accept a payment for campaign swag from a Canadian woman at a Clinton campaign rally — in violation, Mr. O’Keefe contended, of election laws barring campaign contributions from foreigners.
Mr. Trump had been promoting Mr. O’Keefe’s work for years and a few weeks earlier had donated $10,000 from his foundation to Mr. O’Keefe’s group. At the meeting in his office, Mr. Trump praised the new video and pledged more money. As the campaign progressed, he pointed to other videos as evidence of his false accusations that Mrs. Clinton paid people to cause violence at Trump campaign rallies, and since his inauguration he and his team have continued to highlight Mr. O’Keefe’s work as evidence of the president’s repeated claims that the news media is peddling “fake news.”
So these should be good times for Mr. O’Keefe. He has an ally in the Oval Office who shares his views. The nonprofit group he started in 2010, Project Veritas, and an affiliated political arm called Project Veritas Action Fund have raised nearly $16 million, according to tax filings, and last year the group paid him $317,000. After years of criticism from across the political spectrum — including from a conservative establishment that has viewed him with suspicion — Mr. O’Keefe would seem well positioned to be more broadly embraced by the right, and feared by the left.
Yet Mr. O’Keefe cannot seem to get out of his own way. And after an attempted sting aimed at The Washington Post backfired in spectacular fashion last month, he has found himself in a familiar position — defending his misleading tactics, uneven results and even his nonprofit’s tax-exempt status, against criticism from across the political spectrum.
Brent Bozell, an influential conservative who runs a nonprofit group that also seeks to expose liberal media bias, called out Mr. O’Keefe on Twitter for “grandstanding and hurting the conservative movement.”
In fact, the elite conservative donor class has always mostly kept its distance — at least publicly — from Project Veritas. The primary funding vehicles steered by the billionaire conservative brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, for instance, have refused entreaties from Mr. O’Keefe’s allies to support his groups, said people familiar with the requests.
Megadonors interested in watchdogging the media have instead gravitated to more cautious groups like Mr. Bozell’s Media Research Center. It has raised $87 million over the last half dozen years — five times more than Project Veritas during that span, according to tax filings. The Media Research Center regularly collects six- and seven-figure checks from some the right’s leading donors, including the families of the New York hedge fund trader Robert Mercer and the Amway co-founder Richard DeVos.
The Mercer family, which donated $25,000 to Project Veritas through a front group in 2012, subsequently soured on Mr. O’Keefe. The family concluded that Mr. O’Keefe’s periodic successes did not justify his ignominious failures, according to an associate of the family, which has emerged as a leading funder of groups backing Mr. Trump and his allies.
It is not possible to comprehensively assess Mr. O’Keefe’s sources of funding, since the Veritas groups are registered under sections of the tax code that do not require public disclosure of donors. But sporadic disclosures and interviews paint a picture of a support base including mostly libertarian or anti-establishment donors, as well as so-called donor-advised funds that allow philanthropists to donate without fingerprints to nonprofits.
Now some of those donors said in interviews that they were concerned by the tactics used in the Post sting. A woman working with Mr. O’Keefe’s group had approached the paper with a false story about being impregnated as a teenager years ago by Roy Moore, the Republican Senate candidate in Alabama, but instead was unmasked by Post reporters.
“People should be challenged to make sure that they’re doing things right, but not to the point of deception or of defaming,” said the California agribusiness entrepreneur Chris Rufer, who has donated thousands of dollars from his personal and foundation accounts to Mr. O’Keefe’s group.
Publicly, Mr. O’Keefe has been defiant. He posted his own hidden camera videos of other Post employees talking candidly, about their employer and work but revealing little, proclaiming unconvincingly that one such video proved the paper’s “hidden agenda.”
Privately, though, he seemed bothered by the backlash. He wrote a personal letter to Mr. Bozell, a longtime critic, “asking him to clarify his intentions.” Mr. Bozell said he responded “I’m all in favor of undercover journalism to expose fraud, corruption and the like,” but added, “That’s not what you did this time. You presented a fraudulent accusation and tried to get The Washington Post to fall for it.”
In an interview this week, Mr. O’Keefe said his goal was not to get The Post to run an inaccurate story, but rather “to get a meeting, to gain access, to expose their political bias and agenda in that meeting. Nothing more.”
But Mr. O’Keefe insisted that there had been no negative effect among his donors and that “this type of thing has not made them queasy.” He claimed that since the botched sting was exposed, donors motivated by distrust of the media have contributed upward of $1 million to Project Veritas.
“They realize that this is an existential fight, and that we are over the target, and it propels them to support us even more,” Mr. O’Keefe said.
Rebecca Walter Dunn, whose family and its libertarian-leaning foundation have donated at least $110,000 to Project Veritas, according to tax filings, said the group does “an exceptional job of holding the media and other institutions accountable. For that reason, we will continue to support his work.” Asked about the Post sting, she said, “Our focus should not be on the methods or techniques that Project Veritas employs, but rather on the truths or deceptions that they expose.”
It would not be the first time that supporters of Mr. O’Keefe, 33, have stuck with him after an embarrassing setback.
Since bursting onto the political scene in 2009 with a series of undercover videos that effectively took down the community organizing group Acorn, Mr. O’Keefe has lurched between splashy successes and high-profile embarrassments.
He told donors that he implemented new institutional controls after he tried to pull off a sting against Senator Mary Landrieu, a Louisiana Democrat, in January 2010, and was arrested on charges of entering federal property under false pretenses. But before the year was out, he was explaining yet another bizarre failed operation, this one an elaborate effort to humiliate a CNN reporter by secretly recording her as he tried to seduce her on a boat filled with sex toys.
Other aborted plots appeared to be driven by a combination of enmity for the establishment media and Mr. O’Keefe’s grievances about not being taken seriously by the media. A 2010 Project Veritas memo proposed using “moles at The Los Angeles Times” to embarrass a media critic there who had questioned the tactics and accuracy behind the Acorn videos, and also suggested nominating the videos for a Pulitzer Prize, then exposing the bias of the judges by secretly recording their deliberations.
To be sure, some of Mr. O’Keefe’s efforts to expose the media and the left have hit the target. His hidden camera stings of NPR in 2011 and the liberal organizing group Americans United for Change in 2016, led to resignations and a firing, respectively. Mr. O’Keefe’s group also has released hidden camera videos purporting to expose bias among employees of The New York Times.
Mr. O’Keefe established Project Veritas in 2010 — which he says he did from “my parents’ basement with a laptop” and financing from “credit card debt.” It now has 40 employees, including “many, many, many, many undercover people all over the country embedded and inside media organizations,” Mr. O’Keefe said.
And he has Mr. Trump.
Mr. O’Keefe declined to elaborate on his relationship with the president, except to say that he details their interactions in a coming book called “American Pravda: My Fight for Truth in the Era of Fake News.” The White House also declined to comment.
According to Sam Nunberg, a former adviser to Mr. Trump, the men first met in 2013, when Mr. Trump, who was then working to cultivate relationships with conservatives, summoned Mr. O’Keefe to Trump Tower.
Mr. Trump praised his undercover sting videos and resilience, said he was “a good-looking guy” and offered to stay in touch, said Mr. Nunberg, who arranged the meeting. “He was genuinely impressed that James built this whole operation by himself.”
Mr. O’Keefe said this week that his group complements — and also stands to benefit from — what he called “synergies” with Mr. Trump’s efforts to undermine the media, which the president has called “the enemy of the American people.”
For instance, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, used a June press briefing to urge Americans to watch a secretly recorded Project Veritas video of a CNN employee appearing to question the network’s coverage of the investigation into Mr. Trump’s ties to Russia. “I think if it is accurate, I think it’s a disgrace to all of media, to all of journalism,” Ms. Sanders said.
Recalling that briefing, Mr. O’Keefe said, “In many ways, it’s serving the Veritas mission, it’s serving the Veritas vision.” He added, “It’s just a vision to bring information straight to the people — bypassing and circumventing the mainstream media — in that we have something in common.”