RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The Trump administration has had a busy week taking big bites out of some signature Obama-era policies. It's repealing a plan to limit emissions from coal-fired power plants. It's stepping back from the Iran nuclear deal. And it's ending subsidies insurance companies got under the Affordable Care Act. What's notable about all this is how President Trump is doing it - not through Congress, where he's faced significant setbacks, but through executive action. And that's something conservatives excoriated President Obama for during his time in office. Let's hear now from a conservative leader. Ken Cuccinelli is former Virginia attorney general. And he's also leading an effort to get conservatives elected to the Senate. Thanks for joining us.
KEN CUCCINELLI: Good morning. Good to be with you.
MONTAGNE: Let's start with health care. As attorney general in Virginia, you led the charge against Obamacare. And now President Trump has taken some steps this week to dismantle it. Among them, as I've just suggested, cutting subsidies to insurance companies that help income - low-income people get insurance. What is your reaction, though, first of all, to Trump using executive orders to make these changes - something you were highly critical of when Obama did it.
CUCCINELLI: Well, certainly, when you have a situation like the money going to the insurance companies, the D.C. Circuit Court has already ruled that was unconstitutional. So they're following a court ruling on that. It is not striking out on their own by executive fiat in the way that it began with President Obama, which is why undoing that sort of executive fiat action is something that, as a idealistic conservative lawyer, I very much appreciate.
MONTAGNE: Well, that said, in your view, is getting rid of the Affordable Care Act so important that it's worth sidestepping Congress?
CUCCINELLI: No, absolutely not. Ultimately, full-blown repeal has to come from Congress. I have not changed my view from when I was attorney general of Virginia. Executive orders are for filling in and directing the agencies and the bureaucracy how to conduct the president's job. And that's not to make new laws. That is to enact and undertake to enforce the laws on the books. And an awful lot of what President Trump has been doing, especially recently, is attempting to undo other executive actions. And anything where the executive authority existed in the first place to do the action, the executive authority exists to undo the action.
MONTAGNE: Well, let's turn to a letter that you, along with other conservative activists, sent last week to Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, telling him and the GOP leadership to step aside.
MONTAGNE: I mean, this is your party. That's pretty strong stuff.
CUCCINELLI: Well it's long overdue. I mean, they're failing and even attempting in some cases to keep their promises. For instance, on judges, which we cited in the letter, it's the middle of October, nine full months after the president has been inaugurated. And they have approved - voted on seven judges. There are more judicial vacancies today than when Trump assumed office. And there were 50 nominees awaiting action with over a hundred vacancies on the federal bench. It's not unreasonable to demand that they frankly get back to work and start achieving some of the things that they all ran on. And when you combine that failure on McConnell's part with his track record of loathing his own grassroots activists and conservatives and saying so - I'm going to crush conservatives everywhere - that's virtually a quote from Mitch McConnell. That combination isn't tenable as leadership in a party.
MONTAGNE: Given, though, the divisions, which - you're part of this - the divisions in the Republican Party. Isn't a letter like this and the position you're taking against the leadership something of a gift to the Democrats?
CUCCINELLI: Well, the gift to the Democrats is the continuing downward spiral of the popularity of the Republican congressional leadership. I mean, you're now seeing Claire McCaskill, just to use one example - she's an endangered Democrat in Missouri. Trump won the state pretty handily. She has a very strong opponent in Attorney General Josh Hawley. And she is using Mitch McConnell against Josh Hawley effectively in the same way Republicans used Nancy Pelosi in the special election in Georgia. When Mitch McConnell becomes this much of a tool for the Democrats, it's going to demonstrate to the rest of his caucus that he needs to step aside.
MONTAGNE: That's Ken Cuccinelli, former attorney general of Virginia. Now he leads the Senate Conservatives Fund, which aims to elect more anti-establishment conservatives to the Senate. Thank you very much.
CUCCINELLI: My pleasure. It was great to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.